Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Dt at Calvin and Biola + Improv Everywhere + Conan

Tomorrow I fly up to Grand Rapids. I'll be attending my first Calvin Institute of Christian Worship symposium. I'm quite excited to be going. From a glimpse at the program it looks to be a very stimulating and, I imagine, encouraging time. If you're in the area, stop by and say hello. I'll be there from the 27th through the 31st. My workshop, on both Friday and Saturday, is titled "In Search of the Successful Artist: Pastors & Artists on a Common Quest."

The same goes for folks in the LA area on March 10. I'll be speaking in chapel at Biola University. They asked me to speak on beauty. My talk will happen around the same time as their arts symposium, so it should be a pretty heady week there. Chapel starts at 9:30 and I believe takes place in their Chase Gymnasium. I'll be speaking with the art students the night before, which will be great fun.

And speaking of fun, I gotta say, I love these guys, Improv Everywhere. I think they're completely courageous, insane, free, fun, inventive, subversive, sneaky and without a trace of cynicism. And speaking of cynicism--did you catch Conan O'Brian's last words? I was completely astounded. My admiration for the man shot up to a 10 out of ten. Here's a choice bit (full text of program here):

"To all the people watching, I can never thank you enough for your kindness to me and I'll think about it for the rest of my life. All I ask of you is one thing: please don't be cynical. I hate cynicism -- it's my least favorite quality and it doesn't lead anywhere.

Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen."

So refreshing to hear on primetime television.

But back to our improv group. Their fearless director went to UNC down the road, and he looks as sweet as a well-mannered southern boy. I didn't think of it first, of course, but I'd join one of their "carnivale" jests in a heartbeat. Here's one of my favorite:

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

T-minus 4: Book: Barbara Nicolosi -- Artists & Beauty

In this fourth apéritif of our book, For the Beauty of the Church, I am including an excerpt from the divine Barbara Nicolosi Harrington. With the devastation in Haiti fresh in our minds, as artists we will wonder what our role is. Certainly our chief role as Christians is to pray. We pray to God for wisdom and compassion: wisdom to discern our appropriate response and compassion to keep our hearts from growing numb to the inundation of information. But then what?

I think Barbara shows us a way forward. In the face of our world's brokenness, distorted by both material and moral ugliness, the artist announces good news. That news is that there is a God in heaven who hears our cries. That news is that beauty, not ugliness, will have the last word.

In Barbara's excerpt below I am including two separate sections from her chapter. In the first section she describes one specific aspect of beauty. In the second section she describes one distortion or misapplication of beauty.

If you're interested in the whole chapter, which alone is worth the price of admission for her delectable sense of humor, you can pre-order the book here.

[And today is my wedding anniversary. I am thrilled to be married to the lovely Phaedra Jean Taylor. She truly is my best friend.]


As a precursor to answering this question, I want to lay out a few ideas about the nature of the beautiful, because beauty is the terrain of real artists, and one way to recognize them is if they dwell in this terrain….

Thomas Aquinas gave a definition of the beautiful that is still helpful and relevant seven centuries later. The beautiful, he said, is “wholeness, harmony, and radiance,” and these define the terrain of the artist.

Wholeness means nothing is missing. All parts are present, suggesting completeness. No one looks at the Pietà and says, “You know, Mary needs just a little more fringe around her veil. Oh well.” Or, people don’t listen to Mozart’s Ave Verum and say, “Needs another high G in there. Oh well.” There’s something about these works that suggest completeness. Wholeness also means there is nothing extra, nothing gratuitous that isn’t an essential part of the whole. Isn’t that one of the primary complaints about so many movies? “Gratuitous sex and violence.” That is, too often there is no context for these things in a project, so it feels to the audience like they were just slapped in there to try and distract from some flaw in the storytelling. A beautiful work has nothing gratuitous.

And what do we get from wholeness? We are all creatures who have been cut off from our source. There is always a partial emptiness, a longing that can only be filled by divine love. As St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” We yearn to cleave to the One, and when we experience completeness, we have a sense of being at home and at rest. So the beautiful gives us a sense of peace….


The first thing we’ve done to wreck art is make it serve the political instead of the beautiful. I don’t necessarily meaning left or right, but statement-making, which is an utter perversion of the concept of radiance. The goal of statement-making is to manipulate, to coerce, to get people to vote a certain way, to propagandize, to merely change behavior.

I can’t think of a better example of this than in the awful statue of Mary that stands over the outside door of the $200 million Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. It’s just dreadful. The statue is of completely uncertain gender, with a female torso, but harshly cropped hair and distinctly masculine arms and hands. In fact, my students call her, “Man-hands Mary.” But it’s worse than just androgyny. The image has black lips, Asian eyes, a Latino face, and other scattered Anglo features. When I first went on a tour of the new Cathedral, our guide said, “This statue was conceived so that people of all races would see themselves in it and feel welcome in this place.” And I said, “But it’s kind of ugly. I don’t know about you, but if you saw that kind of freak inviting you into its house. . . .” Well, the tour guide sniffed at me, waved her hand, and said, “The church is not about that anymore.”

It begs the question of whether Japanese people really do look at the Pietà in Rome and shrug, “Well, that’s okay for the white people.” But my point is that the goal of the statue was not to make something that would deliver the beautiful. The goal of the statue was to communicate a political message. The fact that it is ugly and makes my students mock it indicates that it has been a failure as a political vehicle too. In politics, you lose wholeness because the political only tells its own side of the story. As a result, people lose a feeling of rest.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Wolterstorff, Validation, the Ides of March 4

1. The first of Duke Divinity School's Distinguished Lectures in Theology and The Arts will be given by renowned scholar Nicholas Wolterstorff and will take place at Duke Divinity School this Thursday, January 21st at 5:30pm. The title of his lecture is:

"Through Beauty and the Aesthetic to Art in Life."

Professor Wolterstorff is Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale University. DITA (which stands for: Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts) is directed by Jeremy Begbie. To learn more about Dr. Wolterstorff's lecture as well as upcoming lectures and Begbie's larger vision for theology and the arts at Duke, visit the home site of DITA.

By the way, I copied the above from the New Creations blog, managed largely by Leif Bergerud. He is doing an outstanding job collecting material in the art and theology field. He's also compiled a rockstar-worthy End-of-2009 Best Of lists (but click down to Dec. 31 to see the sheaves of lists).

2. Validation. This is a short film that my friend Martha Rasco sent me. It's brilliant.

3. The Ides of March 4: Or, Why We All Want Spring Break Real Estate

It has been brought to my attention at least 30 times. The
Laity Lodge retreat lands smack dab in the middle of the IAM Encounter
and the Biola Arts Symposium and a host of other events worthy of our attendance. Let me repeat myself. I am genuinely sorry for the overlap. Our respective events were planned long in advance of each other. We discovered the unfortunate timing only after it was too late to do something about it. I think the world of IAM, and I hope their event succeeds immensely. I also trust that God will guide people wherever they need to be this year. But for what it's worth, I wish folks didn't have to choose.

We've communicated with Mako to offer well-wishing for this year's Encounter. I'm friends with the people behind the Biola conference and their schedule looks tremendous. If you're unsure how to decide, decide geographically: East Coasters go to IAM, West Coasters go to Biola, and anybody in the middle come on down to Tejas.

Otherwise there's always next year.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Mentoring of Artists: New Focus for the Retreat

I was walking towards the gym at Duke in early December. Night had fallen over the campus. It was cold enough to merit a light jacket and, not unusually, I was talking out loud to myself. When I do, I sometimes get stuck on the same phrase. I'll repeat it out loud over and over. This time it was a question: What is it that I've heard artists say the most to me? In the twelve years that I pastored, officially and unofficially, at Hope Chapel, there was one thing I'd heard artists say repeatedly.

They wanted to be mentored.

It didn't matter whether they were 22 and recently graduated from art school or 62 and professionals. They all wanted a mentor. Some wanted an art mentor. Others wanted a spiritual mentor. Still others, masters at their craft, even after longs years of practice knew they had something to learn from their cousins in their craft. Maybe it was a new calligraphic hand. Maybe it was theater actors wanting to learn how to act for film. Painters wanted to learn how to make prints, while poets sought help writing novels and classically trained ballet dancers requested assistance making the transition into modern.

Deep down in our souls we long for a mentor. We yearn for someone who has traveled further down the path that we seek out. Against common perceptions, we are never too old to want or need a mentor.

As I remained outside the gym, pacing back and forth on top of a half wall, I talked to Steven, the Laity Lodge director, on the phone. I told him I wanted to change the focus of our retreat for ministers to artists. I told him I wanted us to swap stories and models for mentoring.

Some of us would be able to share successful stories of being mentored. Others could share dismal stories or stories of holding on to the ache of wanting a mentor but never finding one. Whatever our context, church or school or professional society or coffee shop, all of us are in relationship with people. All of us have something to share.

Steven agreed to the new focus. That night I wrote Luci Shaw and asked if she'd be game. She said yes. I asked her if she would share her artist's biography. So many of us become intimated when we see an artist as a "final product." We think, "I could never become like them." But everybody has a beginning. Everybody has a village of helpers and a series of circumstances, some planned, many unforeseen, that shape us into the person we are today. Rarely, however, do we get to see an artist's winding thrills of unexpected victory and sudden loss, or the slow, bitter slog through day after day of doing the same thing, maybe 10,000 times, in order to get it right, maybe to fail, maybe to learn from our failures, maybe to resent our failures and to see nothing good from them.

I told Luci I'd love for her to share how she started out as a child. Who helped her along as a teenager or a young adult? Who mentored her? Whom has she mentored and what has it looked like? How has God mentored her?

So that's what we're now going to do on March 4-7 out at the Laity Lodge. We're going to explore models and stories of mentoring. We'd love for you to join us. It'll be a great opportunity to learn from each other. Luci and I will each give brief talks, but mostly we want to give space for everyone to share as much as possible. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to ask. And as always, please do pass this along to someone you think might profit from coming.

Oh--and I have a few new features on my blog. It was time to get a slight makeover.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

T-minus 5: Book: Andy Crouch -- Art & the Gospel

I can't think of a better way to begin a new year than with an excerpt from Andy Crouch's chapter in For the Beauty of the Church. In the first chapter of our book, Andy grounds all our artmaking in the fundamental category of culture making. (And if you haven't read his book Culture Making, you're missing out on a very important book.) He argues that art is a gift, not an achievement. Like the entire gospel, art establishes its purpose not in its utility but in something bigger than itself: grace. And like worship it pulls us into something bigger than ourselves, pulling all our play and all our pain into the beautiful life of God in Christ.

Here is the excerpt which appears toward the end of his chapter.

The Artist's Vocation: On Play and Pain
There are two things that artists dare to do, it seems to me, that you can only sustain if you ultimately believe that life is a gift, not an achievement. First, they play. We use that word specifically of musical artists. But it is really true of all art. It is play. It can be very serious play, it can be play that takes years of practice to master—but it is play all the same. It is not fully adult to play. I watch my children at play and I can’t help thinking of how little they know about the brokenness and danger of the world, how innocent they are of what will be required of them as they come of age and work, suffer, grieve, and die. How can you play in a world like this world? It is almost an offense—unless, in spite of the grave condition of our world, our world is still a place of grace.

And yet the other terribly useless thing that artists do is to enter into pain, and to bring us into contact with pain. In Western art this begins, as it should, with meditations on the crucified Christ. I was in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts a few weeks before the gathering in Austin, and I couldn’t help noticing that people’s pace quickened when they came to the rooms housing the medieval, and especially Spanish, art that dwells in dark tones on the dereliction of Christ. They were moving rapidly along to the Impressionist room, where they were happy to linger among Claude Monet’s bright pastel lilies and cathedrals. But Monet’s work is less glibly beautiful when you know his story. He loved Camille Doncieux—the subject of his first widely recognized painting,
The Woman in the Green Dress.

had a child in 1867, they married in 1870, had a second child in 1878, and in 1879 she died of tuberculosis at age thirty-two. In response, Monet created one of his most haunting paintings, Camille on Her Deathbed, in which the young woman, already drawn and pale, seems to be vanishing before our eyes into a whirlwind of nonbeing. Even our beloved Impressionist Monet painted from a place of pain.

Play and pain are two perfectly useless things, and strangely enough, they have to go together. Play can become escapism when we determinedly play on to avoid facing pain. There is a kind of art that is too easy, too willing to let us off the hook, too comforting and too culpably ignorant of what exactly grace costs. At the moment, we find this most often in the bestselling art of the Christian subculture than in the secular art worlds, but it has had its day in even the most secular venues. Pain, meanwhile, can become sadism and masochism when it is unmoored from any hope of grace, so that the artist begins to conceive his job as an endless cynical flagellation of himself and his audience. Difficulty becomes the only test of seriousness, and “decorative” becomes the only remaining swear word.

We who are privileged enough to live in North America live in a world that is forgetting both pain and play. Our popular culture offers us endless diverting amusements that fall flat and well short of real celebration. Our so-called serious culture offers us endlessly difficult dead ends. Who will be the people who can play gracefully, unusefully, in the world? Who will be the people who turn unafraid toward pain? Who will be the people who believe in beauty without being afraid of brokenness? Who will be the people who champion that which is not useful?