Sunday, April 25, 2010

7 Questions for churches with an "arts ministry"

I am increasingly in situations where people ask me what I see going on with churches and the arts. Recently, I had a radio station ask me the question: "David, what churches are doing a good job with an arts ministry?" Honestly, I don't make the best interviewee. I usually answer with something like, "Well that depends." Context is everything. How you define your terms matters. And very little is a straightforward answer. And then the host cuts to commercials.

More often than not I will qualify three terms in that question: church, good, and arts ministry. First, the image that people conjure in their minds when you say "church" is not as broadly common as it was fifty years ago. From megachurches to house churches, as we'd say in Guatemala, "De todo hay en la viña del Señor." There's a lot going on the vineyard of the Lord. Second, the grounds on which you may regard your ministry as good will be as far ranging as the philosophies of ministry that inform a church leadership. And third, some folks may feel very comfortable describing what they do in terms of an "arts ministry." Others will feel the need to amend the phrase.

With that said, however, I find myself with two clear desires: one, to describe as fairly as possible the wide range of artistic activities that takes place in churches today, and two, to promote publicly the efforts of churches beyond my kin. I know Hope Chapel pretty well (or at least I used to). I know what's going in churches around Austin. I know of Imago Dei in Portland and Redeemer Presbyterian in NYC. But when the radio host asks me "What's going on?", I'd really like to be able to say, "A heck of a lot, you know."

So if you have a minute or two, I'd love to hear answers to the seven questions I've listed below. If you have time to answer all seven, perfect. If you only have time to answer one or two, I'll take it. You can write me by email: david (dot) taylor (at) hopemail (dot) org.

Many thanks in advance. I look forward to telling the world about what God is up to in your church context. For fun I've included two videos below with two very different visions for the arts.

[PHOTO ABOVE: artwork that Phaedra created for All Saints Anglican in Durham, NC, to celebrate the Easter season. They're two 8'X3' panels with 250 sheets of gold leaf. See here for details of the work.]


1. What is the stated vision or mission for your artistic efforts?

2. What kinds of activities do you have happening at your church that make intentional use of the arts?

3. With regard to the performing arts, what kinds of things do you have going on that you’re particularly excited about?

4. With regard to the visual arts, what kinds of things do you have going on that you’re particularly excited about?

5. Can you share with me a good story? By “good” I mean a story that involves a significant moment of insight or transformation, whether spiritually or personally, whether relationally or missionally, in the life of your congregation. The possible contexts may include: the corporate worship time, a small group setting, a missional outreach, out in the marketplace, or simply something that took place in the thick of life.

6. What concerns do you have about your arts ministry vis-à-vis your church?

7. Where would you like to be in five to ten years from now?

UPC ADVENT PAINTING from Andrew Pearson on Vimeo.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Barth, Nietzsche and Lady Gaga

Here's a bit of an essay I wrote earlier this term. It presses the question: What exactly is my relationship as an artist to other people? In this excerpt I suggest a few connections between the posture which Nietzsche assumed and that which is assumed by many artists today. If you want the whole essay, just let me know. Context, of course, is everything.

“Originally and properly within I am still alone by myself: in my freedom in relation to the whole cosmos; with my poetry and truth; with the question of my needs and desires and loves and hates; with my known and sometimes unknown likes and dislikes; with my capacities and propensities; as my own doctor, as the sovereign architect, director, general and dictator of the whole, of my own earth and heaven, my cosmos, God and fellow-men; as the incomparable inventor and sustainer of myself; in first and final solitude.” Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.2 (231), describing Nietzsche's basic posture to the world

In this last section of the paper I want to sketch out a few, rough lines of connection between Nietzsche and what I’ll call the über-artist culture. By no means do I intend to say anything definitive. My purpose is simply to note the curious relationship between one of the great 19th-century philosophers and the touted artists of our day who appear to be playing out his ideas with remarkable consistency.

In Barth’s scheme, Nietzsche represents the exponent par excellence of the idea of humanity as autonomous creature. On the first page of his autobiography, Ecce Homo, Nietzsche writes: “Hear me, for I am he; do not at any price mistake me.” On the final page, in heavy type, he signs off with “Am I understood?—Dionysius against the Crucified.” As Barth describes him, Nietzsche “was the prophet of that humanity without the fellow-man.”

In the last and deepest isolation “he and he alone was the eye and measure and master and even the essence of all things” (232). In Nietzsche I, for my part, rediscover the artist of our day: pathetically misunderstood, self-determined, self-obsessed, profoundly alone and who suffers the real sickness of his or her own ideas.

“I am no man; I am dynamite”
Nietzsche believed he had achieved an existence in-apprehendable to the common man, or the scholar for that matter. He writes:

“As I see it, it is one of the most singular distinctions that anyone can evince to take up a book of my own—I myself will guarantee that he will take off his shoes, not to speak of boots. . . . When Doctor Heinrich von Stein once honestly complained that he could not understand a word of my Zarathustra, I told him that this was quite usual. To have understood, i.e. experienced six sentences of it is to be lifted on to a higher mortal plane than ‘modern’ men can reach” (233).

Funnily enough, Nietzsche reminds me of that absurd bumper-sticker dictum: “The fact that no one understands you does not make you an artist.” I have seen plenty of artists misunderstood for the wrong reasons. I have pleaded their cases against Christians who do not wish to understand. But I have also seen plenty of artists wear this misunderstanding as a kind of prophetic robe, which, while assuaging their hurt feelings, keeps them in a worsened state of isolation and vulnerable to their own (and Satan’s) self-deceptions—like this one:

“The memory of something dreadful will be linked with my name, of an unparalleled crisis, of the most profound clash of conscience, of a decision conjured up against everything that has so far been believed and demanded and held sacred. I am no man; I am dynamite” (235).

Nietzsche was right. His names conjures, still today, a powerful sense of dread, fear, respect, fascination and, quite frankly, ballsiness. But there is also something awfully ridiculous about his statement, which we hear repeated often enough in people like glam-rock musician Adam Lambert.

He, like the Sex Pistols, Lady Gaga, Jim Morrison, Eminem or Rihanna, when push comes to shove will simply say, as he did on November 23, 2009: “I’m not a baby sitter. I’m a performer,” with the implication that a) I am not, finally, responsible to my audience and b) if you don’t get that, that’s your problem, not mine.

“I look in the mirror and it’s my career and my life”
Summarizing Nietzsche’s fundamental posture, Barth writes:

“‘I am’ means that I stand under the irresistible urge to maintain myself, but also to make something of myself, to develop myself, to try out myself, to exercise and prove myself. . . . that I may and must in my own place and within my own limits—and who is to say where these are to be drawn?—have my share in the goods of the earth” (230).

This is the posture of the self-determined, self-constructed man. This is also the posture which Heidi Montag, the reality TV “personality” and recording artist, has taken. As the (disturbingly named) Celebrity News Service (CNS) reported back in January:

“With a new set of breasts, chin, jaw, nose, cheeks, lips, waist, hips, and thighs, Heidi Montag's plastic doll transformation is almost complete. "The Hills" personality said she now looks like a "different, improved version" of herself after 10 cosmetic procedures in one day. The 23-year-old aspiring pop singer, as we are all aware, isn't exactly the best role model for younger girls, but she doesn't care because she is just doing what she thinks is right for her. She told "Good Morning America," "I'm living in my skin, and I look in the mirror and it's my career and my life, and you only have one. So, I want to take advantage of everything and be the best me, in and out, every way."”

Read flatly on the page, this is as bizarre a statement as you will find. What is more bizarre is way in which Montag’s behavior is taken as quite normal by the average American (cf. “Jersey Shore” and “Real American Housewives”). Sure, it’s a tad extreme, but how many artists will disagree with her final verdict: “I’m in a different industry,” she told People magazine, “and I have to do things that are going to make me happy at the end of the day.”

Famous and Lonely
Nietzsche penned a little ditty that went like this:

And who would dare
To be a guest,
Thy guest?

Barth finds Nietzsche’s life aptly summarized in the phrase “azure isolation.” Nietzsche is the man, according to Barth, who is “admired and honoured and loved” yet lives “six thousand feet above time and man” (234). He had infinite things to give, yet existed in the indescribable wealth of his isolation. This simultaneous need and repulsion for humanity, this push-pull, this adulation and isolation, describes a great deal of contemporary artists.

Tila Tequila, yet another musician and “reality star,” serves as the perfect example. She achieved “fame” for acquiring nothing less than the most MySpace “friends”: 1.5 million. On January 11 of this year her purported fiancée Casey Johnson died of medication-related causes. Tila tweeted about the tragedy at least 160 times in the immediate aftermath. After people told her to get off Twitter and to grieve “off-line,” she tweeted yet again:

"PPL say I need 2 get off twitter & grieve with friends & family...WHERE? I DONT HAVE ANY! Casey was my only family & my Dogs! Worst day ever."

If it were not a cause for genuine compassion, this is as bizarre a statement as you will find. She has 1.5 million internet “friends,” yet manically asks where her “friends” are.

The lie that many contemporary artists live with, in Barth's vein of thinking, is that my neighbor has nothing to do with me. The lie for the artist is that she is not responsible to her neighbor. What Nietzsche refused to believe, but that the Christian must believe, however, is that “The neighbor is transfigured into a God . . . Jesus is the neighbour transposed into divinity, into a cause awakening emotion” (239).

My neighbor has everything to do with me, because Jesus, as representative humanity, as the God-Man who exists for and with my neighbor, shows me the only way to be truly alive. Saving grace heals the human soul and frees it from sin to receive its neighbor gladly. In Christ we are freed from the “inexplicable apostasy of man” and our “inconceivable revolt” to love our neighbor in vulnerability, gladness, gratitude and freedom (273-274).

“So the real truth about Lady Gaga fans, my little monsters, lies in this sentiment: They are the Kings. They are the Queens. They write the history of the kingdom and I am something of a devoted Jester. It is in the theory of perception that we have established our bond, or the lie I should say, for which we kill. We are nothing without our image. Without our projection. Without the spiritual hologram of who we perceive ourselves to be or rather to become, in the future. When you are lonely, I will be lonely too. And this is the fame.” –glam-rock musician Lady Gaga, aka Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta

Thursday, April 15, 2010

My IAM podcast and 3 quotes

I have officially entered the crazy zone called "finals." Regrettably this means I have margin only for eating, sleeping, emptying the bowels, reading, studying and writing. And, yes, having some good conversations with Phaedra. And, well, maybe a few episodes of Project Runway (season 6), where "one day you're in and the next day you're out." But there's definitely little time for blogging.

I thought, however, that I'd drop here a few things. One is a podcast that Christy Tennant from the International Arts Movement recorded yesterday. I had such a fun time talking with her. She asked me all kinds of questions--from how I became an "arts pastor" to what I think about churches who seek to be "arts churches." You can hear the podcast here. Many thanks to the lovely Christy, who I think is doing a tremendous job over at IAM in the heart of New York City. Oh, also, do check out her other "IAM Conversations." They're quite good, including, I am happy to say, the podcast prior to mine with the fabulous poet Billy Collins.

Here are three things I've read over the past couple of weeks. I've been chewing on them ever since.


“Typically, our emotional lives are messy. They are often confused and transient; they are tangled, come and go, jump out at us at odd times.... Many have borne testimony to the fact that music can help us discover more fully not only what we do feel but what we could or even should feel. To be caught up in the music…is to be caught up in emotional patterns that may be unfamiliar—we may never have felt these things before, or perhaps we have never felt them so deeply.

Just as our muscles are toned in a workout in the gym, so some music can, so to speak, give us an emotional workout (‘I never knew I had those muscles there’; ‘I never knew I could feel that way’) To put this another way, music can play its part in educating, shaping, and reshaping us emotionally. Is this not what the greatest hymns and songs do? They not only help us sing what we already experience emotionally; to some extent they also educate and re-form our emotional experience.” -- Jeremy Begbie, Resounding Truth, 302


"Modernity promised us a culture of unintimidated, curious, rational, self-reliant individuals, and it produced . . . a herd society, a race of anxious, timid, conformist 'sheep', and a culture of utter banality." -- Robert Pippin, Modernism as a Philosophical Problem, 22


"The anxiety to bring the future about is the cause of the frantic rush that is one mark of the modern failure to live serenely in time. Projects and lives are not allowed to mature in their own time, but must be catapulted into the future with ever increasing desperation because, as is well known, the future never comes." -- Colin Gunton, The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity, 90


"Having consciously shaped our desire in certain new directions, we become further shaped by the very mechanism created to achieve those desires, and the mechanisms in turn create still further desires that we seek to satisfy. . . . Clock time has become tyrannical and all-pervasive. Our pattern of life is largely controlled by the clock and calendar." -- Robert Banks, The Tyranny of Time, 126-127


"Why does it seem to be to even the most sensible women, if not an act of lese majesty, at least an impossibility to be 'old-fashioned'? Who wants it this way? The particular industry that tirelessly makes money out of it and whose kings, we are told, reside especially in Paris? But who has made these people the kings?" -- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV.4, 229

(NB: artwork by He Qi.)

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Holy Saturday meditations

1. G. K. Chesteron: The Poet and The Lunatics

"Thank God for hard stones; thank God for hard facts; thank God for thorns and rocks and deserts and long years. At least I know now that I am not the best or strongest thing in the world. At least I know now that I have not dreamed of everything."

2. "Let's get artists into our churches," by Rachel Campbell-Johnston for the
Times Online

"It is less art that needs the Church, but the Church, in its waning popularity, that needs art. It should embrace the opportunities offered to it by culture. There have been a few attempts to revive its patronage over the past century. Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire on the French Riviera, designed by the pioneering Modernist in every detail from the stained-glass windows to the holy-water stoup, remains a place of prayer as much as artistic pilgrimage.

And last year Anthony Caro, in what probably counts as the most significant religious commission since then, installed a series of his big industrial sculptures in niches behind the font in the bombed-out choir of the church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste in Bourbourg in northern France. The result is a truly extraordinary fusion of Gothic architecture and contemporary sculpture, of soaring stone arches and monumental abstracts in wood and steel."

3. To remind us why it matters that we have Christ-fearing bishops, here's a bit of lame speech by my former bishop in Texas, Andy Doyle. It's what I call an exercise in doublespeak pablum.

“While many may not be able to articulate fully the theology of resurrection, I think most Christians would say that they experience a sense of it in Christian community,” said the Right Rev. C. Andrew Doyle. “They experience resurrection through relationships with others, through the community a congregation offers and from service and outreach to other people. Christians testify that they experience, receive, and act out of the mystery of resurrection — this feeling of constant renewal.”

Lastly, in honor of the Holy Spirit, by whom the Father raises his Son Jesus from the dead, here is a most gorgeous hymn to the Spirit, "Veni Sancte Spiritus." We'd be none the poorer for singing it on the Holy Triduum, not just Pentecost.

Come, Thou holy Paraclete,
And from Thy celestial seat
Send Thy light and brilliancy:
Father of the poor, draw near;
Giver of all gifts, be here;
Come, the soul’s true radiancy.

Come, of comforters the best,
Of the soul the sweetest guest,
Come in toil refreshingly:
Thou in labor rest most sweet,
Thou art shadow from the heat,
Comfort in adversity.

O Thou Light, most pure and blest,
Shine within the inmost breast
Of Thy faithful company.
Where Thou art not, man hath naught;
Every holy deed and thought
Comes from Thy divinity.

What is soilèd, make Thou pure;
What is wounded, work its cure;
What is parchèd, fructify;
What is rigid, gently bend;
What is frozen, warmly tend;
Strengthen what goes erringly.

Fill Thy faithful, who confide
In Thy power to guard and guide,
With Thy sevenfold mystery.
Here Thy grace and virtue send:
Grant salvation to the end,
And in Heav’n felicity.

(Photos: via the Boston Times, sent to me by my good father)