Sunday, October 26, 2008

Dolphins, Guns, 2 Churches, Duke, Thailand

I sat next to the great Miami Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese at the Atlanta airport this past Thursday and didn't know it. Then the football commentator Al Maguire walks up to Bob and I think to myself: "You idiot. Bob asks you how long it takes for your dumb cell phone to charge and you say, 'O, probably too long,' then go back to your introverted, quietist, non-conversationalist self, when you could have made small talk."

I'm a long-suffering Cowboys fan. And it was Super Bowl VI, on January 16, 1972, the year of my birth, that Roger "the dodger" Staubach duked it out, and won, against Griese. Griese, Maguire and this other dude were headed to Austin to call the UT Longhorns game against Oklahoma State. My Longhorns won, barely.

Standing in the check out aisle at our local Hobby Lobby, I grab a craftsy-blue measuring tape and tell Phaedra to measure my guns. I pull up my shirt sleeve and flex. Phaedra cringes. "What?" she asks, looking around at the other people standing in line, embarrassed. "Go ahead, measure these guns." We're one person behind the counter, so we have time I figure. The folks behind us won't mind. I'm back in high school and this is what you do: measure your guns, anywhere, everywhere, anytime.
"Here," I say, handing her the tape. "Pull it out and measure." I'm totally living it up and smiling. I don't know how I persuade her, but she does it--hurriedly. "Eleven inches." "What?!" "Oh sorry." She pulls it around properly and this time it's twelve, twelve inches of musclely bicep guns.

Arnold had 22 inches, so I'm definitely on my way.

One of the churches in town, Austin Stone Community Church, is headed in a new direction. They want to be a church "in the city, for the city." I think that's a pretty good deal. They interviewed me for their video series and this is some of what I said.

A Church for the City (Reprise) from The Austin Stone on Vimeo.

Phaedra and I had a great time with the good folks at Union Center Christian Church. We had an unusually excellent connection with the senior pastor, John Hawco, and with Brian (exec pastor) and Tamara Murphy (creative arts director). We spent several hours over brunch on Monday and felt a sweet kindred spirit with them. We admire their courage in taking risks with the congregation in re. the arts--very good, very sound risks.

I preached two services on Sunday AM. My three points, which you could hear here, are:

1) Art reminds us of the unnecessary and therefore, theologically, that all is grace.
2) Art reminds us of the importance of our bodies and therefore, theologically, that the Incarnation is the basis for all our embodied endeavors.
3) Art reminds us of our need to make sense of our lives and therefore, theologically, that God is constantly seeking to pull us out of chaos into order.

An eighty-something year old man came up to me and said in one of those classic old guy quivering voices, "Son, I've never thought about art or about culture, never thought it was important, but this morning God convicted me and I want to respond." I don't know how many years he has left to respond, but better late than never and that's probably as good a compliment as I could ever receive as a preacher.

On Phaedra's end she received continually positive response to her art work. I was very proud of her.

We took a walk down a country lane and this is some of what we saw (which, God help us, we don't have in Texas).

Beautiful barns.

Our future home (we wish).

Beautiful tree.

Yet another beautiful tree.

Our new hospitality-to-the-max-friends Briand and Tamara.

Monday we headed down to Durham for our visit to Duke. Here are some pics.

Phaedra standing at the base of Duke Chapel.

Mugging very reverentially for the camera on the inside of the chapel.

Our fine hostess Carole Baker standing with Phaedra in front of Duke Divinity School.

Gazing at ginormous lily pads in the Duke Gardens.

Duke Gardens.

The site of Phaedra's birthday dinner last Wednesday at the Blue Corn Cafe, which had some pretty mean guacamole happening.

This Tuesday we fly to Bangkok, Thailand. It'll be 1 hour to Dallas, 13 hours to Tokyo, then another 7 to Bangkok where we'll be picked up at 11PM on Wed. evening and driven 2 hours to Pattaya. There we'll join some 250 missions leaders from around the world for World Evangelical Alliance's triannual consultation. I will be facilitating, along with Colin Harbinson, an arts & missions track.

It'll be new territory for me and I don't presume to be an expert. So we go to look, listen and learn. Phaedra and I are looking forward to meeting some pretty amazing saints. This is also dad's stomping grounds so it'll be fun to see it all in action.

We're praying for grace as we interact with folks from all around the world, that God would grant us an expanded vision of His kingdom. We're also praying for joy, that Phaedra and I would truly enjoy each other in this new experience. We're still in our first year of marriage after all.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Discipline of Reading Outside Your Tradition + NY + Duke

"As the poet said, 'Only God can make a tree' -- probably because it's so hard to figure out how to get the bark on." "The lion and the calf shall lie down together but the calf won't get much sleep." -- Woody Allen

Tomorrow Phaedra and I fly up to Endicott, New York. Since Endicott doesn't have an airport, we'll be using Syracuse instead. I'll be preaching both services at Union Center Christian Church. Generally speaking my goal in the sermon is to make a case for the way in which art serves the purposes of God's kingdom. The answer usually is: yes.

I do have sermon notes, and a pretty sweet audience-participation illustration, and if I can get the senior pastor to dance, all the better, but I'll have to work on my powerpoint during our lay over in Atlanta.

On Monday we jump on a plane down to Durham, North Carolina, for a chance to visit Duke Divinity School. We have a good deal of questions and we're praying for divine serendipities. This grad application thing is sweaty, stressy business. Though I'll never bleed anything but burnt orange, my heart is open, and so is Phaedra's, to God's leading, including blue. (But seriously--a blue devil?)

(And now for an advertisement approved by the David Taylor campaign: I really do love my wife.)

Here, then, is the third section of notes for my Nashville arts conference talk (part one here, part two there).


An Anecdote: [I talked here about my experience of reviewing the Ragamuffin Film Festival movie submissions.]

The problem: These Christian filmmakers were producing work that was imitative and predictable. There was nothing nuanced happening on screen. The movies assuaged us as an audience and were incapable of pulling us into anything bigger than ourselves.

Why was this the case? Many reasons, I’m sure. But one definite reason is that our imaginative soil as believer artists is often too shallow. And if the soil is thin, the fruit will be weak.

Illustration: [Pull out two peaches, or as the case turned out, two tomatoes.] Take the fruit we commonly purchase in our grocery stores. Here is a mass-produced, mass-distributed fruit that sits piled high on the shelves. It looks great; and it’s fine to a degree. But it’s never a match for locally grown organic fruit. Here is an example of the economy of expense—an expensive amount of time to grow, an expensively rich soil. Is the expense worth it? Consider the effect of each fruit on our bodies. With the plasticky, glossy fruit we “fill our stomach.” A filled stomach counts for something. But is that why God made fruit? Surely not. With the organic fruit we actually nourish and energize our bodies.

So too, I suggest, with much art. We can often settle for the quick and cheap and highly productive. It fills the bookshelves. It keeps the media outlets supplied. But the fruit often leaves us un-changed. Alternatively, we can choose the slow route that costs us time. It’ll make us sweat. We’ll be made to endure months and perhaps years of patient toil. It’ll take great energy and attentive care to produce good work. But the result will be art that is deeply nourishing and long-lasting.

The discipline explained

What produces such art? A rich imaginative soil.

How do we cultivate this kind of soil? We do it by the discipline of reading the “classics” outside your artistic tradition.

What is a “classic” work of art? Mark Twain, speaking of books, remarked that it was “a book that people praise and don’t read.” Well that’s not what we have in mind. We have in mind art that contains high mineral deposits of aesthetic excellence. For Os Guiness, a classic is rich in wisdom. C. S. Lewis once said of the old books, the “greats,” that they help correct “the characteristic mistakes of our own period.” They train us, that is, to become far-sighted creatures.

In a multi-media age that often leaves our heads mushy, a classic can wake us up. When Eugene Peterson read James Joyce’s Ulysses, he says of the experience: “I woke up. Joyce woke me up to the infinity of meaning within the limitations of the ordinary person on an ordinary day. . . . Leopold Bloom, buying and selling, talking and listening, eating and defecating, praying and blaspheming” (Subversive Spirituality, 175).

A classic, then, nourishes our imaginations with lush reservoirs of ideas, metaphors, nuanced observations of human nature, a skilled sense of what’s too much, what’s too little. A classic can rescue us from making everything about me and my sub-culture.

The discipline illustrated

What kind of classic works do I have in mind? Let me suggest a few.

Music: Rachmaninov’s Russian choral music, from the “Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom” (PLAY excerpt). There’s Mozart’s Requiem and the way he gives sonic meaning to our pathos over death and loss. Duke Ellington & Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man.” The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors” (1971, @ poverty of her childhood).

Visual art: Fra Angelico’s “Annunciation.” Caravaggio’s “Doubting Thomas.” Cezanne’s “Still Life with Apples.” Richard Serra’s “The Matter of Time” (R. Hughes: “the best sculptor alive”).

Plays: I think every one of us should read one Shakespeare play out loud at least once a year. Beyond that there’s everything from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman to Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead.

Novels: All of Western literature is a kind of response to Homer’s Odyssey, penned in the 8th B.C. As I do with Tolkien’s trilogy, Homer is worth reading once every five years. There’s George Orwell’s Animal Farm. There is the Columbian Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ lyrically magical One Hundred Years of Solitude. There is the Japanese author, Shusako Endo’s, disquieting tale a Jesuit missionary sent to 17th century Japan, called Silence.

Dance: Save your pennies one year so you can buy season tickets to the ballet the next.

Architecture: Go to Europe and do a cathedral-hop across the continent. Or go to Chicago.

Poetry: With poetry you can’t go wrong with anything by John Donne or Wendell Berry. But you don’t have to be serious to read poetry. The American poet laureate Billy Collins writes some very fun stuff. Hear this one titled: X.

To conclude this section of my talk, the only way I’ll become a better playwright is if I learn from the masters of my craft—Shakespeare, Beckett, Mamet, and many more that I don't have time to name or that I've yet to encounter, especially outside my cultural radius. But the only way I’ll produce deeply nourishing, longer-lasting work is if I read the classics outside my artistic tradition and so allow the whole communion of artistic saints to enrich my imagination.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Killed a bird. Swam the river. The Pope of Protestantism.

Austin musician Beaver Nelson, playing the "collect" for our morning worship. Laity Lodge artist retreat. October 2007.

Killed A Bird.

"The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention." --Flannery O'Conner

I killed a bird last Thursday. I didn't mean to. It was a grackle, a bird that looks like a cross between a raven and a dove. When it sings it makes a harsh, unmusical readle-eak sound. They're scavengers for the most part. Iridescent black creatures, they troll our backyard for worms, pecans, or stale corn chips that we toss out at night. And they're the fowl brutes. We see them bullying the smaller bluebirds and cardinals off of our homemade water fountain. We don't like them.

But I'm not out to kill them either. I was having a bad day at the driving range. I had that "bad head" again--lazy head, lazy hands. My shots were whistling erratically across the range, one almost hitting a car in the parking lot. This time, I stood over the ball, pulled my swing back, and as I swung it through I lifted my head up just slightly, thereby causing the ball to rocket out in a line drive two feet above the ground. As I followed the line of flight I turned and to my horror saw the ball strike a grackle in the head, thrusting it up into the air. It was pure David and Goliath.

The poor thing hopped around mad. It looked like a charlie chaplin dance. I was horrified--and somewhere in my subconscious fascinated, like a seven-year old kid who hasn't yet figured out how nature and morality go together. I kept saying, oh no, oh no. Then it flopped once more and fell over. An older gentleman two mats over said, "Well, son, it happens sometimes. It's a golf range. They should know by now." I didn't feel better. In fact, things only got worse when all the grackle buddies, seven or eight of them, flew down and circled around the dead body. I thought, oh great, a bird funeral. I hope they don't eat him.

A few days later one friend looked me in the face and said: "David, well think of it this way. You hit a birdie." Then he laughed. I still feel bad about it. And seriously, what are the chances that my body's movement, the movement of the ball, and the flight of a bird all coincide? In the death of a bird?

If I were Flannery O'Conner I would write a short story that would make providential sense of the coincidence. I'm not. Instead I have the makings of a sermon illustration for which I don't yet know the meaning.

Swam The River.

"I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one." --Flannery O'Conner

This past weekend I joined a group of artists from far and yon for a retreat at the Laity Lodge. Loads of visual artists, some sharp musicians, poets, filmmakers. No dancers. One tin whistle player. We heard two solid talks by Murray Watts, a playwright and screenwriter who lives in the boondocks of Scotland at Freswick Castle. Great man. Good times were had by all at the LL. Here are a few pics.

Two artists navigating down the Frio River. Yes, frio is cold. And yes, I swam it like a happy fish.

Left to right: poet-singer-songwriter Nathan Brown, seminarian Adam Langley, pastor Greg Holmes, installation artist Roger Feldman, calligrapher Kate Van Dyke, and Hurricane Ike refugee Joan all sit listening to something funny Murray Watts says.

Printmaker artist Heather Parrish sitting on the edge of the canyon bluff.

Hanging with Nathan Marion, executive director of the most excellent Fremont Abbey arts center in Seattle, WA.

Kim Alexander (co-director of the Trinity Arts Conference), Laura Jennings (painter in Austin), and Terri Fisher (the woman who prays for artists, and boyhowdee do we need more people like her).
One of our featured artists, David Friesen, a jazz bassist who has performed with some of the greats: Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Henderson, Chick Corea, Milt Jackson, Airto Moreira, and the list goes on and on. It was a great gift to hear such excellent jazz music. Go here for a nice excerpt of his music.

My good buddy Mike Akel and me standing over an overcast canyon.

The Pope of Protestantism.

"At its best our age is an age of searchers and discoverers, and at its worst, an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily." --Flannery O'Conner

Eileen Flynn, the religion reporter for the Austin American Statesman, is teaching a class at the University of Texas on journalism and religion. It's a class that once belonged to welterweight journalist Marvin Olasky. She asked me to come in yesterday to talk to the students about evangelicals and the media. I said yes. At first I was nervous. I spent a whole day re-reading material I'd prepared for the Statesman a few years back. I wrote a four-page handout. I asked friends to pray. But still, I had the willies.

I decided I needed a way to ease in. I would give them a pop quiz. Three questions to suss the class out and calm my nerves. I gave them 1 minute to write an answer for each.

1. Tell me the difference between the term evangelical and evangelistic.
2. Define the term feminism and give me an example of somebody you believe truly represents it.
3. Who is the pope of Protestantism?

And once we got going with the quiz I relaxed and felt free to tell a few bad jokes and go with the flow. I told them that the first question was about the importance of how we define and use our terms (something Bill Maher doesn't seem to care a lick about. It's just fun and games and a bunch of ridiculous religious people. See here for Salon's very curious review). The second was about landscapes and a reminder that "in the vineyard of the Lord there are many grapes, each claiming to be the true grape of the Lord." And the third was to draw their attention to the trickiness of figurative speech.

One guy, in answer to #1, said, "One letter." Sure thing: an eleven-letter word vs. twelve. One gal answered #2 by giving herself as an example. When I moved on to #3 I got a long silence. I threatened to call on someone. One student finally raised his hand and said, "There isn't one." I laughed and said, "Good answer. Anybody else?" Another silence. Then a girl said sheepishly, "Jesus?" I smiled. "Well, in one sense, yes. He's the great shepherd of the sheep. Anyone else? Ok, keep thinking outside the box, non-literal stuff." Then a bearded fellow who works at WholeEarth raised his hand: "Billy Graham?" "Bingo," I said, finally landing at my desired answer. Naturally the nearly 90-year old grandfather of neo-evangelicalism would shiver at the appelation, but hopefully he would also take it light-heartedly. For many in the fold, he functions de facto as the authoritative padre.

In any case, the point was to get us thinking about the challenge of reporting on religious language and people. It's not easy, I know, and I assured them of my respect for their wanting to do good work. With less than a month till our national elections we're witnessing plenty of reports on the ole evangelicals, some sound, some stupid and sloppy. Plenty of mitosis has taken place in the evangelical community since 2000. I admire Eileen for her desire to want to teach this young bunch of journalists-in-the-making. It gives me great hope.

In the end I was grateful for the opportunity. It reminded me how much I love teaching. Towards the end, during the Q&A, I found myself narrating my experience of losing and then re-finding my faith in Jesus during my years at UT. It was the strangest thing to hear these words coming out of my mouth, but also exciting.

After their pop quiz I told them that when I was a student it would have meant a lot for my self-esteem if the professor had given us Snickers bars. To make sure they didn't leave college without the pleasure, I pulled out a Halloween-inspired "super bag" of Snickers. I passed them around and asked that the bag be entirely consumed. What's the point, I figured, of talking about things that make you crazy--religion, politics, the media--if you can't have a candy bar to enjoy the experience.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

My Essay for Christianity Today on Beauty

Here's the essay I wrote for Christianity Today mag via the Christian Vision Project. One bit of it goes like this:
"I submit, then, that when we present a gospel that ignores or devalues beauty, we not only present a small gospel but also a distorted gospel, because it misrepresents our God.
The God whom we preach can end up not looking like the Word made radiant flesh, but like the Word who belongs to a Mensa club. He has the answers, all of which are true, but with no real presence. He is the Right Idea who looks nothing like the resplendent, technicolor Son of Man—"hair a blizzard of white, voice a cataract, face a perigee sun"—whose beauty captivated the heart of St. John.
Likewise, instead of the Good Shepherd whom Mary of Bethany leisurely beheld, we can easily find ourselves following a worker-of-the-month carpenter, a driven good-doer who gets plenty accomplished for the kingdom, but who looks like a far cry from the transfigured Glory whom the early church fathers called the 'everlasting desire of nations'...."

I'm sure I'll get the kind of feedback that wonders why I didn't answer this or that question. For example, doesn't Isaiah 53:2 say that "He had no beauty or majesty to attract us?" Well yes it does. But to go from Isaiah's figure of the Suffering Servant to Jesus-as-physically-unattractive is an olympic jump that may not be warranted from the context. This may in fact be one of our worst proof-text cases in run-of-the-mill Christian conversation.

In any case, my point is simply to say that, yes, there are many dimensions and questions about beauty that I could not address in a 2,000-word piece of writing. I'm aware of many of them. I'm also aware of the shortcomings of the essay. My encouragement is to keep in mind the smallish objective of my essay: to argue for the idea of beauty as evocative of longing. What happens after that is thoroughly un-simplistic.
I've written further thoughts on the subject here:

On Beauty: Axiom #4: Your Job is not to Make Pretty

On Beauty and the Art of Schooling: Part 1

On Beauty and the Art of Schooling: Part 2

For those interested in making a more serious investigation of the idea of beauty, I recommend the following resources for starters:

1. The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts. This is a multi-author volume that came out of a Wheaton College theology conference a couple of years ago. It includes chapters by Jeremy Begbie, Bruce Herman, Roger Lundin and a very fine essay on poetry by Jill Pelaez Baumgaertner.

2. Theological Aesthetics: God in Imagination, Art and Beauty, by Richard Viladesau, a Catholic theologian teaching at Fordham U.

3. Theological Aesthetics: A Reader, edited by Gesa E. Thiessen and which contains some excellent excerpts on beauty from the early church fathers.

4. And if you are very ambitious and keen to plow through high-level florid language, I recommend The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth by David Bentley Hart, a prodigious Eastern Orthodox theologian.

As more lighter fare but still refreshing, here's an op-ed by Chuck Colson on ugly church buildings and the goodness of beauty for beauty's sake: here.

For all you coffee connoisseurs, go here for a beautiful take on splashing milk.

On the contemporary philosophical front, there's this for an appetizer:

"For the 20 centuries between Plato and Kant, the study of beauty was a signature concern of philosophy. Recently, however, beauty has largely been dropped from the philosophical curriculum. The story of how this has come to pass is inseparable from a broader story about how philosophy itself has become so hopelessly professionalized. Contemporary philosophers, preoccupied with their small quarrels, have abandoned the discussion of beauty to the likes of Elaine Scarry and Denis Donoghue and their colleagues in art and English departments. It should come as little surprise, then, that beauty has been smuggled back into philosophy by Alexander Nehamas, a professor of philosophy at Princeton, whose previous books have made wideranging inquiries into what he calls 'the art of living'."

Alright, I'll leave it at that for now. If you know of any other interesting commentary on beauty, feel free to let the rest of us know.

The artwork posted is by the French contemporary sacred artist Jean-Marie Pirot, affectionately known as Arcabas. His work is beautiful and fresh. See here for an introduction to the man and his work.