Saturday, October 31, 2009

T-minus 6: For The Beauty of the Church (book excerpt)

It's the eve of All Saints Day.

The kids outside are making mayhem in their masked outfits. Halloween, frolicking and garish, announces itself on the streets. By tomorrow we'll wake up to a single-minded rush for Thanksgiving. Soon it will be crushed by "Christmas." All around our house the landscape is changing. The trees in our yard have turned from green to fiery yellow, tangerine orange, pomegranate red, purple, bronze, all looking like candy colors that you could eat. It's perfectly glorious, especially for folks from Texas.

And we're six months away from the arrival of my book, For the Beauty of the Church: Casting A Vision for the Arts.

I've decided for each month from here to March 2010 to post an excerpt from the book. I'll also include some of the artwork that will accompany each chapter. God help me I'm almost done. Or I should say, we're almost done. Eight writers, eight artists, one project editor extraordinaire, an acquisitions editor, a team of marketers and designers, the Baker Books family, a patient wife, an unendingly encouraging family, a tribe of friends who have read early drafts and prayed faithful prayers. What a relief. And what a donkey amount of work to put together a book.

The following passage is one of my favorites from the book. In it Eugene Peterson, in his chapter titled "THE PASTOR," tells a story about an "expert" architect who visited their church. Their church was small at the time. It had begun thinking about the possibility of a permanent space. The small band of believers dreamed of different architectural forms to give expression to "who" they were and who God was in their midst. It turns out the expert had all kinds of ideas. His ideas, however, completely ignored who these people were in this time and in this space. It's a classic story. It'd be funnier, of course, if it weren't so common.

Here is how Eugene tells it.

"I was still in the early years of my formation as a pastor. I had completed my seminary training, spent a couple of years in graduate studies in Semitic Languages, gotten married and begun a family, spent another three years as an associate pastor, leaning the ropes of church life. And then I was called by my denomination to form a new congregation in a small community twenty miles Northeast of Baltimore. I was thirty years old.

I had a lot of book learning. I had taken on responsibilities in family and church that were in process of forming a pastoral identity in me. But I was still far from being formed. I had not yet become who I was called to be.

My wife and I spent three years gathering a core congregation in the basement of our home. We were now ready to construct a church sanctuary. While we were getting ready to do that Bezalel came into my life. But not directly. He came mediated by Gerry Baxter. It happened like this.

The denominational office responsible for supervising the organization and development of new churches sent a consultant from a large architectural firm that specialized in churches to meet with our building committee. As the six of us sat around a table, the man began pulling church building plans out of his briefcase for us to consider: “Here’s a colonial. This is historic colonial country you are living in; I think this might suit the ambience of the culture here. And here is a kind of neo-gothic. It has a distinctive “church” look—it would probably attract people who don’t know much about church but are looking for something solid and safe.” And then another: “I think you would be interested in considering this one. It’s very popular right now—a multi-purpose building, easily convertible from sanctuary to church suppers to community gatherings. Very functional. Given your circumstances, I would probably recommend this.”

The man left. He had been with us a little over an hour. He had not asked us a single question. He left knowing nothing about who we were or the way we understood church. We decided that all he know of church was in those half dozen building plans in his briefcase. It took us not more than twenty minutes to agree that we weren’t going to use his services. We weren’t interested in selecting one of the standard options. There was more to church than a building. We needed a building. But we were not about to be reduced to a building.

What he didn’t know and didn’t bother to find out, was that we had been worshiping together for three years in the house basement in which our meeting with him had just taken place. What he didn’t know and didn’t bother to find out, was that we were already a church—a church in formation. We were new at this, true, but already well on our way in discussing the nature of worship, the nature of congregation, and the part that architecture would play in expressing and shaping our identity in this local neighborhood. “Colonial” and “neo-gothic” and “functional” had very little to do with who we were. We were not a set of blueprints.

Our denominational supervisor was not happy with our decision to reject the “expert” (his term) counsel that he had provided for us. He warned us that we were being very foolish. I think he even used the word “headstrong.” He had been through this process dozens of times; we knew nothing. Which was not quite true. We knew nothing about blueprints but week after week for three years we had been accumulating a sense of church.

One of our building committee members knew of a young architect who had recently begun his practice in our town. I was sent to talk to him. He had never designed a church, but was very interested in what we were doing. He agreed to come and talk with us. A lot of questions were asked, back and forth. We liked one another. We asked him to be our architect.

That was the beginning of my getting to know Bezalel. Gerry Baxter wasn’t Bezalel and although he had grown up in the church, I doubt if he had ever heard of Bezalel. But without knowing it he introduced me to Bezalel whom I had heard of but never really noticed. That acquaintance gave a decisive turn to the shaping of my understanding of pastor and the formation of my vocation."

Sunday, October 25, 2009

5 Questions for the Arts in the Church

(Note: I lost my wedding ring last Sunday and it has providentially re-appeared today. I can't tell you how happy I am. I feel like that woman with the lost coin in Jesus' parable.)

Christians from the very beginning of the church have had to answer five questions about the role of art in the church. These questions are of a fundamental sort. They do not determine what exactly we will do with, say, visual art or music. They will reveal rather what we believe to be truthful and necessary for the well-being of the church. The answers to these questions are by no means straightforward. A great deal revolves around how we interpret the Scriptures. Our personal and ecclesial histories will factor in. But as you look back on history and as you look around you at the practices of contemporary churches, everybody will have answered these five questions, whether consciously or unconsciously. Whether we've articulated our answers is a separate matter. The fact remains: our actions have answered the questions for us. Here they are.

1. What is stated explicitly in Scripture about the arts?

2. What is stated implicitly in Scripture?

3. What is warranted by history?

4. What is pastorally salutary?

5. What is good for the unity of the church at large?

Pick any art form in any particular manifestation and work your way through these questions. Take something easy for starters, say music. Let's attempt a brief exercise. Let's slot in answers for music.

1. Really this question comes as a two-headed hydra: What does Scripture prescribe and what does it proscribe? Plenty, for example, is said positively about music in the Psalter. But how you perceive music's proper role in the church will depend on a) how you interpret passages in the NT such as Ephesians 5:19 and b) whether you believe the NT's relative silence on instruments suggests a positive or negative estimation of instruments. The language of Hebrews about "shadows and figures" vis-a-vis the OT will also loom large. You will find plenty of passages in the prophetic literature which comment "negatively" on music. Is this commentary a universal disapproval of music or only of the misuse or abuse of music?

2. Psalm 150:3 commands us explicitly to make music with the "strings and flute." Does this imply that any instrument which is produced by the manipulation of strings and wind counts as a biblically viable way of worshiping? We know from history that the organ did not receive a universal welcome at its inception. We also know that the electric guitar (strings + amplification of wind) has earned less than enthusiastic reception in certain churches. What does the Bible imply about good uses of music and the instruments with which we make our music?

3. Appealing to the practices of Christians throughout history is always a powerful argument. What did the apostolic church do? What did the early church fathers do? What did the Medievals do? Or not do? What did the transition from chant to polyphony look like and what arguments were made to defend its harmonic entrance into the church's musical worship? Are all instruments "equally valid" in their service to the liturgy? The tuba, the tympany, the didgeredoo, the sitar, the saxophone? Yes? No? On what grounds? Are all instruments somewhat like the "one body, many roles" of 1st Corinthians?

4. Here the pastor plays a crucial role. A pastor may believe from #1-3 that the Hammond B-3 organ should be incorporated into the church's service. He may live in a particular city in a particular part of town where jazz features largely, say New Orleans. He may have a pile of jazz musicians eager to serve the liturgy. They may be ready to make that electric organ jive to the theological and emotional contours of David's psalms (not vice versa, mind you). But the pastor may also have a congregation made up entirely of senior citizens. These saints grew up in the Baptist tradition and knew only the peacable sounds of a "traditional" organ. For them the H B3 would be strange. For this pastor it would not be pastorally salutary to dump the Hammond B cold and fast on a people for whom those sounds will distract instead of usher their souls to God.

5. But perhaps in the long-run it will be good for the unity of the church at large to welcome to B-3. Perhaps the church will remember that every generation will bring its own new instruments into the hallowed courts of worship. To thoughtlessly reject them because they are "strange" and "new" will distort not only what the Bible allows, even encourages ("sing to the Lord a new song"?), but it will also needlessly alienate a population of young people who are zealous to offer their whole selves, jazz tunes, organ sounds and all, to God--much like those revoluationary monks in the Middle Ages who introduced multiple melody lines into the brothers' nighttime prayers.

But perhaps not. How you have answered the first three questions will inform your actions related to #4 and #5. And somestimes #4 and #5 will work retroactively on #1-3. Sometimes our experience of something will cause us to read Scripture differently. We will see new things in the biblical text. They were always there but our cultural context prevented us from seeing rightly.

Or perhaps not.

And a great deal of this will have to do with your notion of authority: who, why and on what grounds.

These are some of the issues that I want to explore in next spring's retreat for ministers/leaders to artists. Stay tuned. Dates are March 4-7.

Speaking of which: Luci Shaw has agreed to be our second speaker. Total yay for that.

And now back to doing research for Lauren Winner on, in her words, "all scholarly articles related to correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams." Good times.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Learn your scales, ladies

Last night Phaedra and I had the privilege of hearing the music of Anonymous 4. Their program was entitled "Secret Voices: The Sisters of Las Huelgas, Music of Thirteenth-Century Spain." As they explain in the program notes, the repertoire of "13th-century polyphony and sacred Latin song was collected for a convent of noble and aristocratic women." These nuns "sang the most beautiful, most advanced and demanding music from all over Europe in the 13th-century." Then the program added this historical note:

"Their convent, Las Huelgas at Burgos in north central Spain, was on the road to the well-known shrine of Sant'Iago de Compostela. Did these ladies send emissaries out to collect sacred music from England, France and Germany, or did pilgrims who stopped at their convent for rest and refreshment leave, as a token of their thanks, copies of songs they may have been carrying along? It will never be fully known, but there's no mistaking the international nature of this music."

The pieces that our "anonymous" four women performed included Ave Maris Stella ("Hail star of the sea") and the gorgeously rendered In Virgulto Gracie ("In the Garden of Grace"). The program was divided into five sections: Dawn, Morning, Mass, Evening and Night. The music moved from polyphony to monophonic Latin song, and at different points they would sing all together or only two or, on occasion, a lone voice carried the hymn. Listening to this ancient song, echoing through Duke Chapel's vast neo-Gothic space, gave us a little glimpse of what it might have originally sounded eight centuries ago.

It also reminded me how easily liturgical music, that is "functional" music, can be turned into fine art music. Music that originally functioned to enhance prayer now becomes music which we "contemplate" at a distance. As an audience we clapped at the end of each section. Was that because we, like charismatics, clapped at the honor of God? Or did we clap because the artists excellently performed their parts? And did some in that room, devoid of any conscious belief in God, experience an intensely "numinous" encounter--with what? Did they taste God unawares? Did they feel the Kyrie eleyson and the Benedictus qui venit in nomine domini in their bones? Did some of us during that vesperal hour of song give our hearts to the musical notes while others of us gave our hearts to God through the notes? Through the text? Through both? What exactly happens to us when we hear irreducibly "sacred" music?

These are the questions that make art and faith anything but dull.

It was not all serious, though. One text they sang was a "practice" text. The "solfeggio" exercise was called "Fa fa mi/Ut re mi." With it the nuns practiced singing hexachords under the watchful ear of the music mistress. If they were going to be singing night and day, they might as well sing it right. I'm copying here the text, translated from the Latin, because not only did it make me chuckle, it also sounded like pretty good, theologically based advice for artists.
Fa fa mi fa mi re mi
ut mi sol re mi ut fa fa
fa re fa fa re ut re mi ut re mi.
It is foolish to despise these
because they are the elements of music
according to the wisdom
which the holy ones have handed down.

ut re mi ut re mi
ut mi re fa mi sol fa la
sol ut fa fa.
Sing out these and other such things,
you cloistered virgins,
golden nuns:
you are fitted for this
because you were born to cultivate polyphony,
the wisdom which the holy ones have handed down.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

St. Basil on Music + Irving Penn's photography

I love the passage by St. Basil below. I stumbled on it at the end of a long day reading through Richard Hooker's Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. I love these serendipitous discoveries. You wade through material, some lively, some dull, then you alight on St. Basil, the fourth-century bishop of Caesarea, and feel that all the wading was worth this one moment. Note the connection between music and pleasure, music and God, music and sanctification, and the allusive (or sneaky stealthy) manner in which music accomplishes its God-given role. Hooker makes his own translation from the Greek and I've translated, as best possible, Hooker's 16th-century English into more modern.

“For whereas the Holy Spirit saw that mankind is unto virtue hardly drawn, and that righteousness is the less accompted of by reason of the proneness of our affections to that which delighteth, it pleased the wisdom of the same Spirit to borrow from melody that pleasure, which mingled with heavenly mysteries, causeth the smoothness and softness of that which toucheth the ear, to convey as it were by stealth the treasure of good things into man's mind."

The American photographer Irving Penn died on October 7. I decided to rummage through some of his work to find out a little more about the man. I was completed mesmerized by some of his black and white portraiture. Here are a few that I especially liked .

Friday, October 02, 2009

Announcing ArtMachine Studios (aka Phaedra's rad business of teaching art to children)

I'm very proud of Phaedra for taking this risk. She is starting a business to teach art to children. She's checked out business books and art/children/pedagogy books from the library to help her start right. She's building a website. She's created a FAQs page, a 10-week curriculum, a set of classroom guidelines, and a totally righteous teaching philosophy that assumes that kids are smart enough--after all--to learn and quite possibly to love art history.

Case in point: one class she'll devote exclusively to the color yellow. In that class she'll show the kids a slideshow that illustrates the ways in which artists throughout history, from Medieval to Modern, have used the color yellow. She'll have the kids respond to the images. She'll ask them, "How does the use of yellow make you feel in this painting? How about in this other sculpture?" She'll read a children's illustrated book that prominently utilizes yellow. Then she'll have the kids make something--roused by their imagination--using yellow in a prominent way. She'll show them how yellow relates to other colors, and how it relates to ideas about art and to experiences of art that have been significant throughout history.

Wait--what age did you say she was going to teach with this method? 4 year-olds. Is she serious? Won't it be too much for them? Not at all. The concepts in art are quite simple. They can be made as complex or as complicated as people wish. But the ideas about texture, shape, color, line, smell and taste and weight are, well, elemental. Phaedra simply wishes to introduce kids (from 4-10 years of age) to a realm that by God's design is rich and fantastical. And she thinks kids should get the opportunity to visit this realm as early as possible.

Train a child in the way she should go and she shall not depart from the ways of understanding how beautiful and life-giving and powerful the realm of art can be. In the beginning God created the color yellow, and it wasn't the same ever since.

Phaedra is thrilled to be standing at the threshold of a completely new venture. She's also terrified, on some days utterly terrified. Myself, I think she's got everything it takes to succeed. She just needs an old fashioned dose of discipline and perseverance along with continual encouragement--pretty much like the rest of us. But I'm proud of her for giving it an honest shot.

And the fact that she is turning 30 by the end of this month makes it even more of an exciting adventure.

>Here is her website: ArtMachine Studios. At the moment it exists in rudiment form. On Monday she will fill it out and announce it officially. I'm simply her John the Baptist, announcing good news in advance.

And if you know anybody in the Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill area with kids, please let them know.

Stay tuned....

(And there she is, standing amidst a riot of color in the Duke Gardens. Ahh...color.)