Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Packer Quotes, E. Peterson Opinions, an Art Sermon

(PHOTO: My nephew Cormac giving ol' uncle David a beard trim.)

#1. James Innell Packer

You never know what you'll find when you pack your house for a cross-country move. I found a paper I wrote at Moody Bible Institute on rock'n'roll music (scary). I found a 374-page screenplay titled, "The Love of God," that a stranger had sent via mail to my office at Hope Chapel for my consideration (it was bad and at one page per minute, that would translate into six hours of bad movie). I found the results of my Foreign Service exam (very strange feeling--almost a lifetime ago--I passed but, still, I have very little emotional relationship to that part of my life--so strange).

This morning I discovered a list of Packer quotes in a manila file. My last year at Regent College I decided I would collect as many as I could. I'd TA'd for him for three years, so I knew he produced aphorisms like a latter-day Yogi Berra. I asked staff and fellow students to send me their favorites. One day he would be no longer with us. We might as well capture the Packerisms while we remembered them.

Here are a few that I retrieved off of an old student newspaper, dated April 21, 1998.

(Explaining the quick and the dead): "They say that in New York if you're not quick you're dead."

"I'm not going to object if you want to admonish me spiritually in your term paper."

"It's one of these Packer alliterations which make some people happy and give other people indigestion."

"I love you and leave you and wish you a very happy Tuesday evening."

"Jesus Christ is the Atlanta Airport...through which everything has to go. Well, you know, they say in Texas that you can't even get to heaven without going via Atlanta."

"If you don't want coffee, perhaps to jump up and down a bit might wake you up. Who's to say? Try it and see."

"Chickens, return to the coop."

#2. Eugene Peterson with a few sharp opinions about pastors, artists, and commercialism.

The audio clip below is from an interview I conducted by radio with Eugene prior to the Transforming Culture symposium last year. The station is local Christian talk-radio. Brian Wallace, former Intervarsity regional staff and current lead pastor (#2 man) at First Evangelical Free Church, sat with me in the studio.

I love listening to this interview. It really cracks me up. Eugene doesn't give a hoot about anything any more. He's old, he's put in his time, he's thought carefully about his opinions and convictions, and he's had it up to here with certain kinds of pastors. I confess, though, that I freaked out just a little. I thought, "Eugene, what the heck are you doing? We're trying to persuade pastors to come, not repel them."

This interview cracks me up, further, because Eugene is the worst radio interviewee. The DJ asks him a question and Eugene just sits there on the line, thinking, thinking, thinking. The result is radio silence. That of course is the very worst thing that could happen to a DJ, whose job is to fill every second of air time with something--anything but silence.

I offer you here a little taste of my life last March as I pursued every opportunity to promote the symposium.


#3. An Art Sermon.

Finally, here's a link to the sermon I gave last week at Christ Church Anglican. My lavalier mic went out in the middle of my preaching. I didn't realize it in the moment. The soundman patched me through a podium mic and I, unconsciously, projected with my diaphragm. Thankfully he was able to capture most of my sermon.

The goal of my sermon (which the soundman, to my amusement, titled "We Need Art!") was to help the congregation understand three ways in which art helps us to appreciate specific aspects of the gospel that we may not perceive otherwise. My three points were:

1. Art helps us to understand grace.
2. Art helps us to understand the importance of our bodies.
3. Art helps us to make sense of our lives.

It's pretty straightforward stuff, nothing new really. But I like the sermon because it's a congregation-friendly, widely accessible talk. If I stood in front of any congregation and could only say three things on behalf of the arts, I would give this sermon.

A last note about the first illustration that got chopped off. I start out the sermon by handing out Jelly Belly jelly beans to the entire congregation. I then ask people to tell me what flavors they're tasting. That's where the audio picks up. It takes a little while for the audio to adjust, but there you go.

And now back to packing our house.

I leave you with a picture of Phaedra and me. Our nephews celebrated a joint birthday recently, with their chosen theme being "military." So Phaedra and I dressed the part. Here we are standing smart in my parent's backyard. I don't think the US Army would let me keep my beard, but I bet Che Guevara would. Phaedra looks like she'd make you drop and do twenty without a moment's hesitation.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

3 Reasons Humans (Should) Make Art + A fUn ViDeO

(PHOTO: I took this picture of our thermometer in the backyard a couple of weeks ago. It was in the afternoon time. The thermometer is in the shade. Welcome to our apocalyptically hot summer.)

This coming Sunday I preach my last sermon in Austin before heading off to North Carolina. Cliff asked if I would give Christ Church my best, most awesomest sermon on the arts. I told him that was too much pressure. Instead I'll give them my best shot. And it'll connect to some of my recent reading.

I just finished Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams' excellent book, Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love. In it he explores the aesthetic ideas of French philosopher Jacques Maritain. This he does in chapter 1. In chapters 2 and 3 he considers the impact of Maritain's ideas on two 20th-century artists: David Jones, a poet and painter, and Flannery O'Connor, a novelist. In Williams' final chapter he teases out some of the implications of Maritain's basic presumption, namely that faith or, more boldly, Christian doctrine, far from suppressing creativity, makes "more and deeper things possible for the artist."

I love that. Amen and amen.

I usually read in a chair that sits at the front corner of our dining area. It looks out onto our front yard. I watch people walk by with their dogs. The garbage man picks up our buckets of trash with his superman mechanical arm. Squirrels scamper up the pecan tree that stands to the left of our entrance. I drink my tea. I eat my granola. I keep a small ruler, a pencil and a yellow highlighter on my lamp table, which help me keep track of things that catch my attention.

A few days ago I asked myself for the "eleventy billionth" time why we humans make art. The question per se doesn't trouble me. What troubles me is when I add the word "should." Why should humans be making art?

For a brief moment the answers became very clear. There are three reasons why I believe we as humans, and moreso Christians, should make art.

1. God is creative, therefore we as bearers of God's image are creative. We are creative in many divers ways: as industrial engineers and food scientists, as humanitarian lawyers and figure skaters. One way we express our creativity is through artistic works. God makes the Andes mountains, Frank Gehry makes architectural wonders like the Dancing House. God makes the viper fish, Flannery O'Connor makes The Violent Bear it Away. God makes squirrels who play tag half of the day in our back yard, we make A Mid-Summer's Night Dream and big band music and Texas Hold'Em.

God commissions poetry (in the form of a Psalter) to communicate essential theological features of his way of being, we commission T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets and Eminem's The Marshall Mathers to communicate essential features of our way of being, confused as it may be. This last example ties in to our second reason.

2. We as humans make art as one way to make sense of things. Art specifically enables a process of discovery for us that "ordinary rational naming and analysing fail to represent." Let me allow the Archbishop to speak for himself:

"By engaging us in an unforeseen pattern of coherence or integrity, art uncovers relations and resonances in the field of perception that 'ordinary' seeing and experiencing obscure or even deny. Thus art in one sense 'dispossesses' us of our habitual perception and restores to reality a dimension that necessarily escapes our conceptuality and our control. It makes the world strange.

So, finally, it opens up the dimension in which 'things are more than they are', 'give more than they have'."

For example, Steinbeck writes Of Mice and Men to make sense of the effects of natural disaster on human community. Sondheim, along with Laurents and Bernstein, creates The West Side Story to make sense of ethnic tensions in mid-1950s New York.

And speaking of musicals, the Disney channel creates High School Musical 3 because it totally rocks to break out into song whenever you feel like it. You can be a jock and a dancer. Oh yea!

3. At the center of the life of the Godhead, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is grace. Grace always offers itself as an excess of divine life. In the being of God we find a super-abundance of love, joy, goodness, creativity and so on. Grace is excess.

Human beings, as image-bearers, will always manifest a life that is X+1. To be human, in my little formula, is to be X+1, where X satisfies all our most basic needs for human subsistence--such as water, food, shelter, work, relationship--and 1 represents the realm of excesses and superfluities, such as, well, everything that makes human life full and rich and, to put the point sharply, true. God gives us not mere water but artesian springs water. He also gives us the imaginative and technical capacity to create Dom Perrier water and Lemonade water and and thirst-quenching Gatorade Tiger water, the official drink of Tiger Woods.

God does not provide us with minimalist food. He creates a world with a capacity to produce over 7,500 varieties of apple. 7,500! From this myriad variety we can make apple juice and apple wine. We can make apple pie, apple crumble, apple cake, apple crisp. We can bake them or stew them. We can dry or puree them. The Brits make a toffee apple. Isaac Newton gets hit on the head by a falling apple and discovers a theory of universal gravitation.

Do we need jazz music? That depends on how we use the term "need." If we equate need with our most basic requirements for human subsistence, then no. But that reduces human life to a minimalist notion, which contradicts the whole ethos of Genesis 1 and 2. Look at God's own behavioral pattern. He does not make minimalist trees. He makes endlessly variegated trees. Why? Grace. Indeed creation reflects the same kind of grace that represents the inner life of the Godhead.

So when we make jazz music, we do so as a way to enter into the very life of God, a life marked by the excesses of grace.

I can't pretend to have described these three reasons for art-making with the highest precision. But I hope I've given us a good enough reason not to dismiss art hastily. Is evangelism important? Yes. Is feeding the poor important? Yes. Are they needful? Yes. The one participates in God's work to mend the human heart through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The other participates in God's work to provide for our most basic needs as humans.

Is art-making important? Yes. In making it we bear out the image of God as creative beings. We deepen our knowledge of ourselves. And beyond that we participate in the always-more-than grace of our triune God who ever pulls us into the Life that is truly Life.