Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Bits & Bobs

1. John Giuliani's art. I recently stumbled on Giuliani's art, which uses both Native American Indian and Mayan peoples as stand-ins for Gospel characters. I find it wonderfully haunting.

2. On Architecture: "The High Cost of Ignoring Beauty"
-- A fine article sent to me by my amiga Kate Van Dyke.

"Architecture clearly illustrates the social, environmental, economic, and aesthetic costs of ignoring beauty. We are being torn out of ourselves by the loud gestures of people who want to seize our attention but give nothing in return."

3. Article: Nicholas Wolterstorff on "Why Philosophy of Art Cannot Handle Kissing, Touching, and Crying" (via my friend Kelly Foster)

Great essay for those philosophically minded, but also great for those who feel unease with the way proprietors of fine art all too easily snub the more popular arts. Click down the till you get to the "Philosophy" section.

"Wolterstorff argues that a proper philosophy of art must account for all the various ways in which art has meaningfully appeared in people's lives throughout cultures and times. Along the way, he offers some characterizations of analytic-style philosophy."

4. Journal on Material Religion.

"Material Religion" is an international, peer-reviewed journal which seeks to explore how religion happens in material culture - images, devotional and liturgical objects, architecture and sacred space, works of arts and mass-produced artifacts. No less important than these material forms are the many different practices that put them to work. Ritual, communication, ceremony, instruction, meditation, propaganda, pilgrimage, display, magic, liturgy and interpretation constitute many of the practices whereby religious material culture constructs the worlds of belief."

5. A church website that might need a little trimming of bells and whistles and light saber sounds.

6. "Man tries to pay bill with spider drawing." True or not, it's pretty darn funny.

7. If you missed it, here is the full text of the Pope's recent address to artists.

8. R. R. Reno's un-official "A 2009 Ranking of Graduate Programs in Theology" published in the First Things blog. Duke Divinity fared well in his estimation and it made me grateful for the privilege of studying there.

9. More of the World's Best Microscope Photography (courtesy of KVD).

10. It's all about the fundamentals. Here's a great article about an Asian-American kid playing pretty good basketball at Harvard. It's a poignant story, as are all stories about first or second-generation ethnic families seeking to integrate into American society. But I love what the father says about his boys and their relationship to basketball. I can't think of one domain of life, let alone the artistic, where this doesn't apply.

"I realized if I brought them from a young age it would be like second nature for them," Gie-Ming said. "If they had the fundamentals, the rest would be easy."

11. Gor-geous installations by the artist Gabriela Nasfeter. But do click onto her website, then click "Installationen," and look at images from her first gallery. Her church "lichtpyramiden" are stunning.

12. And because it doesn't get any better than this...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Bonhoeffer on Christmas and a Wild Idea

The text at the end of this entry is an excerpt from a sermon which Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave in 1933. It was the third Sunday in Advent. His passage was Luke 1:46-55.

The artwork above is by Albrecht Altdorfer, titled "Birth of Christ." It was this particular work that prompted Bonhoeffer to write a letter to his parents on the first Sunday of Advent, in 1943. Writing from Tegel Prison in Berlin, he wondered at the artist's compositional decision. He found it curious that Altdorfer, who lived from 1480 to 1538, against all tradition, had chosen to place the Holy Family in the middle of a dilapidated house. Perhaps the artist meant to say, Bonhoeffer mused, that "Christmas can, and should, be celebrated in this way too."

A few observations. One, there is something wistful about the fact that this great 20th-century theologian was writing his mom and dad. How often do we think, "Hey, Bonhoeffer's got a ma and pa"? Yet there they were, playing their parental role to the end. Two, his insights are made all the more poignant because his death lay four months away. And three, with regard to his sermon of 1933, he exposes the profound misunderstanding of the Incarnation which a certain Anglican church in Auckland, New Zealand, prominently displays on its website, and he brings to light the rash and nonsensical, and, I add, ultimately hopeless, thinking of its rector. The classical view of the Incarnation is 'ridiculous'? Yes, it is ridiculous. Preposterous? I hope so. Implausible? Not necessarily, and certainly not on the logic that an outrageous claim cannot be true. Surely it's not that simple.

I say, to my fellow parson, hail to the God who overturns all desires for a manageable god. I say hail to the God of the poor and the rich. I say hail to the God of our worst enemy, no less than ourselves, and to the God who looks with compassion again and again on all our weak, tired selves. I say hail to the God who, when we've come this close to figuring out the manger and the cross, beaten into cliche by the rite of annual pageants, leaving us un-disturbed, un-fluttered by mystery, entertained, bored, worn out and wandering through the world with thin imaginations, incapable of resisting the powerful, alternate imaginations of our culture, still manages to surprise us with un-bidden grace, confronting our presumption and yet offering us a taste, yet again, of the Life that is truly life. Thank God for Jesus Christ, Deum de Deo, Lumen de Lumine.

And I say bah humbug to the dumbing down of Christmas. It irritates me how quickly our culture, out in the world and in the church too, exchanges peace on earth for stress on earth. Is it really the most wonderful time of the year? I drive around town and find that it's one of the most tiring times of the year. Tired, haggard, distracting, frazzled, burdened with the anxiety of expectations that may never be met. And then there's the ubiquitous pottagy mush of Christmas music. It's about as silly as this dance by Stephen Colbert (courtesy of Travis & Leslie Hines):

Does your average civic religionist know the vicious origin of the carol "We Wish You a Merry Christmas"? Probably not. Or the concrete history behind any carol, save "Silent Night"? Unlikely. How can they when, by dint of repetition, carols are flattened into innocuousness.

But here is my wild idea.

Can you imagine if Christians in North American decided one year not to buy any gifts? Let's estimate a conservative number. Say 100 million Christians in the US and Canada did everything else associated with the season but we cut out purchasing gifts. Not a single one. Instead of buying and receiving presents we spent our time, money and energy being together. We served those with less. We shared simple meals, or even extravagant ones. We did things which invigorated our physical bodies. We entertained each other with not a single electronic device, but only whatever instruments or talents were to be had in the room, even if it meant telling really bad jokes all night long. We relished silence. We prayed for the persecuted church around the world. We asked the Holy Spirit to help us attend to the Incarnation; awaken our imaginations with deepened understanding; and give us the grace, for one moment, to experience the freedom from false wants that play havoc on our hearts.

Can you imagine how much time we'd have on our hands if we cut from our schedules running to the stores and surfing the internet for gifts?

Forget "one gift less" efforts? (Although I love what the guys behind "Advent Conspiracy" are on about.) Let's try no gifts. Just one year. Our economy might buckle, sure. And the church would need to be ready to help folks who would suffer. But just think of the new ways that creative energy might be unleashed. Just think how we might arrive at January 1 feeling, well, refreshed.


Well, it surely can't hurt to imagine.

Here, then, is Bonhoeffer's comment on the Magnificat.

"If God chooses Mary as his instrument, if God himself wants to come into this world in the manger at Bethlehem, that is no idyllic family affair, but the beginning of a complete turnaround, a reordering of everything on this earth. If we wish to take part in this Advent and Christmas event, then we cannot simply be bystanders or onlookers, as if we were at the theater, enjoying all the cheerful images.

No, we ourselves are swept up into the action there, into this conversion of all things. We have to play our part too on this stage, for the spectator is already an actor. We cannot withdraw.

What part, then, do we play? Pious shepherds, on bended knee? Kings who come bearing gifts? What sort of play is this, where Mary becomes the mother of God? Where God enters the world in the lowliness of the manger? The judgment of the world and its redemption--that is taking place here.

And the Christ child in the manger is himself the one who pronounces the judgment and the redemption of the world. He repels the great and the powerful. He puts down the mighty from their thrones, he humbles the arrogant, his arm overpowers all the proud and the strong, he raises what is lowly and makes it great and splendid in his compassion.

Therefore we cannot approach his manger as if it were the cradle of any other child. Those who wish to come to his manger find that something is happening within them."

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Phaedra's sassy Holiday art sale

Phaedra's turning into a proper businesswoman. I'm quite proud of her. I've seen her overcome the terrifying fear of venturing into the business world. Artists will be the first to tell you. Just because they're an artist, that doesn't mean that they're a manager/marketing director/ad campaigner/legal consultant/administrator. A few thrive in the business of selling their work. Many do it because they have no alternative. Most never give it a try. It's like asking a professional clown to be a National Aeronautics and Space Administration engineer also. Sure, some can pull it off. But it's usually rare.

That's why we need the church to kick it in. We need business men and women to come alongside artists (and vice versa, presumably) to help them get their work into the market.

I told Phaedra I'd play her amateur manager. This entry is a little effort in that direction. The following includes some of the work she's has produced in the last couple of months.

If you're interested, you can contact her here. See here for her initial note on her recent Holiday Boutique. See here for her report.

And, finally, see here for a huge range of photographs of her work. I've included a sample below. And here are her prices:

- Handwarmers: Small - $7, Large - $9
- Hand Painted Ornaments - $3.50 or 3 or $10
- Paper and Beeswax Ornaments - $6 for a bag of 7 - 2 large, 3 medium, 2 small
- Mohair Scarves - $32.00
- Hand Printed and Calligraphed Bookmarks - $3 - $5
- Small Encaustic Artworks - $30 - $50
- Framed Linocut Prints and Original Watercolors - $150.00 - $475.00

Friday, December 11, 2009

T-Minus 5.5: Book - Jeremy Begbie - Art & the Future

I had a hard time deciding which chapter to excerpt second. They're all so good. As I look around at the madness that keeps popping up in the news (see this excellent op-ed on Tiger Woods over at ESPN), I thought Jeremy's chapter might prove helpful. What can artists be doing in a broken world like ours? They can join the Holy Spirit's work in "Exposing the Depths." This is Jeremy's fourth point out of six.

By the way: my last post was #200 as a Blogspot Blogger. This past November I celebrated my fifth year blogging. What a deal.

And check this out: you can already pre-order the book on Amazon!

The Spirit Exposes the Depths
Fourth, when the Spirit comes from the future, the Spirit exposes the depths.

At the center of John’s vision stands the victorious Lamb (Rev. 21:22; 22:3). But earlier he has told us that this Lamb bears the marks of slaughter (5:6). This should stand as a subversive warning against all sentimentality: when we misrepresent reality by evading or trivializing evil, usually for the sake of indulging pleasing emotions. Our refusal to face evil for what it is takes many forms, but is perhaps most pointed in Western society’s common denial of death. We grab at the things of this world because we cannot bear the thought that they will dissolve into dust like everything else.

We dupe ourselves into thinking there will always be enough to meet our wants—enough fuel, enough energy, enough land—because we cannot imagine an end to all our acquiring, the possibility that there are limits, that things and people are not everlasting. Provocatively, theologian Stanley Hauerwas contends, “There’s a connection between the amount of money [we] spend on medicine and our reaction to 9/11. Both are attempts to deny that we’re not going to get out of life alive.”

Many believe we have reached an “aesthetic moment” in our culture, when artistic media are quickly assuming massive importance in shaping the Western imagination. If there is truth in this, it is vital that Christian artists do not succumb to the sentimentality that so often accompanies surges of aesthetic enthusiasm. William James once wrote about a visit to a Christian resort in New York State. He tells us of “the atrocious harmlessness of all things” and how he longed for the outside world, with its “heights and depths, the precipices and steep ideals, the gleams of the awful and the infinite.”

It is probably in our worship that this sentimental “flattening out” is most evident. We see it in our tendency to avoid any art in worship that will not instantly push the “feel-good” button, lest we lose members or repel newcomers. We see it when we insist God should grant everything in an instant, matched by music where every tension is immediately resolved, no dissonance “lived through.” We see it when we crave for direct, unmediated access to God, forgetting that God is always to some extent mediated through the finite materials of the created world. We see it in what Rowan Williams calls the “sentimental solipsism” of some recent songwriting, where the erotic metaphors of medieval and Counter-Reformation piety reappear but without the theological checks and balances of those older traditions. As a result, “Jesus as object of loving devotion can slip into Jesus as fantasy partner in a dream of emotional fulfillment.”

Of course, great swathes of art, especially of the twentieth century, have waged war against sentimentality—from the Expressionists to Francis Bacon. But we should be wary of presuming too quickly that this will provide the exposure of evil to which the gospel is then presumed to provide the “answer.” For in our own power, we can never uncover our true condition. This is the Spirit’s work, and he does so above all by returning us repeatedly to Golgotha. Here, climactically and paradigmatically, the Spirit “sounds the depths,” and the depths are deeper than any of us could have imagined. Here all pretense is stripped away; here we are all unmasked as enemies of God, murderers of his own only Son. Out of the depths, out of the fathomless abyss to which we have sent him, Christ howls, “My God, my God.”

Of course, there is a double exposure here. For the exposure of our true condition is at the same time the exposure of the extent and extremity of God’s own love, the sheer strength of divine passion, which precedes and outruns all human sin. For the one who cries from the pit is none other than God himself in solidarity with the lowest of the low; the eternal Son of God dredging the nadir of his creation with patient love; the faithful Son reaching into the pit of darkness we have made for ourselves in order to open it up to his Father’s eternal embrace. Here indeed we witness the “the gleams of the awful and the infinite”: the awfulness of our plight and the ardor of a far greater infinite love.

To the common objection, “This is to marginalize the resurrection,” we must surely respond that in the New Testament, Easter does not cancel the crucifixion but vindicates it, confirms it as the place where evil has been grasped and defeated, the place where sin is taken to the grave, the place where we are both exposed and forgiven.

Fortunately, many contemporary Christian artists in recent years have found themselves tugging against the strong currents of sentimentality evident in our society: songwriters such as Matt Redman in England; John Bell of the Iona Community; visual artists such as Bruce Herman, Tim High and Anneke Kaai; the Hungarian playwright Andras Visky. Perhaps rather more “on the edge” are characters such as Sinead O’Connor, the Grammy Award-winning Irish singer and songwriter, whose latest album (entitled “Theology”) is dedicated to a professor in thanks for his classes on Jeremiah. Especially prominent in Great Britain is the music of the Roman Catholic composer James MacMillan, who embodies perhaps more than any other living musician the counter-sentimentality I am attempting to describe here.

My vision for the arts and the church in the next fifty years? Artists and pastors together exploring what it means to allow the Spirit to “expose the depths.”

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

What a bizarre world we live in

1. Argentina beauty queen dies from butt surgery.

"Solange Magnano, 38, died in hospital, after being transferred from a clinic where she underwent an elective surgery on her buttocks last Wednesday."

That's generally the way the reports ran on Monday. Several things strike me as devastating about this event. One, the former Miss Argentina died leaving behind a husband and eight-year-old twins. Two, she died for a nicer bottom. Three, just in case we missed it: she died. Four, she put her life and the life of her family at risk for an irrational desire. In the words of Argentine fashion designer Roberto Piazza, who was also a friend of the model, "A woman who had everything lost her life to have a slightly firmer behind."

It's completely tragic and absurd. The question, to my mind, isn't "What kind of world do we live in where that kind of death becomes a possibility?"

(That's got to be a foreign concept to people living in the Medieval ages. Maybe they died of a hatchet to the butt. But I can't imagine they died of cosmetic surgery to the butt. You didn't like your butt? You drank another pint. You wished it were different? You covered it with three-inch burlap material. Or maybe you didn't even think that much about your butt, because you had plagues on one side and feudal wars on the other to worry about. )

The better question I think is: "To what extent are the rest of us complicit in a culture that makes that a common desire?" And "What can each of us as men and as women do--not just believe, but do--to resist such a culture? What kind of counter-cultural, gospel habits and practices can we take on that would offer a compelling alternative to the usual 'plastic surgery-makes-you-happier' tale?"

The answer to these questions is way too complicated for a blog entry, so I'll move on to Bizarre Event of the Week #2.

2. Tiger Woods has alleged affair with woman and the world of golf will never be the same.

You probably don't need me to give you details about this one. The news is everywhere (a fine op-ed commentary here). But it does lead me to conclude, yet again, that:

a) sin makes you stupid, in the most holistic way possible, and

b) sin will eventually catch up with you, if not in this life, then in the next.

It's also usually the case that sinful behavior results in the most unpleasant and often uncontrollable forms of inconvenience. Just think how many hours and perhaps months Tiger will have to spend on this matter, when he could be serving his various charitable foundations or growing intimacy with his wife and children.

And then the alleged mistress says i-dee-o-tic things like "Whatever happens with Elin [Tiger's wife], I hope Tiger and I can reconnect and remain good friends."

What the what?

Are you smoking crack?

Maybe the worst part about the situation with Tiger is that the rumor-mongering turns into a circus overnight and it devours every square inch of media. Violence in Pakistan? Possible racism in mayorial race in Atlanta? The health care reform mess? Forget it. Who said (maybe) what to (possibly) whom is racy and exciting. For the next several days (pray God, let it not be weeks) we'll be host to the rise and fall of the pseudo-celebrity of Ms. Grubbs et al.

Oh, right, she's already a reality TV star--or is that a "reality" TV "star"?

And now I'm going to cease giving time to this loco news and get back to my work.

Just remember, folks: Only because a famous couple looks good doesn't mean they are good, or happy, or fulfilled, or living the easy life.