Sunday, May 30, 2010

Gotta Love the Republic of Texas (we've got it all)

This is a must read for all Texans, used-to-be Texans, adopted Texans or wanna-be Texans (via my little sister Stephanie):

Pep , Texas 79353
Smiley , Texas 78159
Paradise , Texas 76073
Rainbow , Texas 76077
Sweet Home , Texas 77987
Comfort , Texas 78013
Friendship, Texas 76530

Love the Sun?
Sun City , Texas 78628
Sunrise , Texas 76661
Sunset, Texas 76270
Sundown, Texas 79372
Sunray , Texas 79086
Sunny Side , Texas 77423

Want something to eat?
Bacon , Texas 76301
Noodle , Texas 79536
Oatmeal , Texas 78605
Turkey , Texas 79261
Trout , Texas 75789
Sugar Land , Texas 77479
Salty, Texas 76567
Rice , Texas 75155
Pearland , Texas 77581
Orange , Texas 77630
And top it off with:
Sweetwater , Texas 79556

Why travel to other cities? Texas has them all!
Detroit , Texas 75436
Cleveland , Texas 75436
Colorado City , Texas 79512
Denver City , Texas 79323
Klondike , Texas 75448
Nevada , Texas 75173
Memphis , Texas 79245
Miami , Texas 79059
Boston , Texas 75570
Santa Fe , Texas 77517
Tennessee Colony , Texas 75861
Reno , Texas 75462
Pasadena , Texas 77506
Columbus , Texas 78934

Feel like traveling outside the country?
Athens , Texas 75751
Canadian, Texas 79014
China , Texas 77613
Egypt , Texas 77436
Ireland , Texas 76538
Italy , Texas 76538
Turkey , Texas 79261
London , Texas 76854
New London , Texas 75682
Paris , Texas 75460
Palestine , Texas 75801

No need to travel to Washington D.C.
Whitehouse , Texas 75791

We even have a city named after our planet!
Earth , Texas 79031

We have a city named after our state
Texas City , Texas 77590

Energy , Texas 76452

Blanket , Texas 76432
Winters, Texas

Like to read about History?
Santa Anna , Texas
Goliad , Texas
Alamo , Texas
Gun Barrel City , Texas
Robert Lee , Texas

Need Office Supplies?
Staples, Texas 78670

Want to go into outer space?
Venus , Texas 76084
Mars , Texas 79062

You guessed it.. It's on the state line.
Texline , Texas 79087

For the kids...
Kermit , Texas 79745
Elmo , Texas 75118
Nemo , Texas 76070
Tarzan , Texas 79783
Winnie , Texas 77665
Sylvester , Texas 79560

Other city names in Texas , to make you smile.........
Frognot , Texas 75424
Bigfoot , Texas 78005
Hogeye , Texas 75423
Cactus , Texas 79013
Notrees , Texas 79759
Best, Texas 76932
Veribest , Texas 76886
Kickapoo , Texas 75763
Dime Box , Texas 77853
Old Dime Box , Texas 77853
Telephone , Texas 75488
Telegraph , Texas 76883
Whiteface , Texas 79379
Twitty, Texas 79079

And last but not least, the Un-Al Gore City
Kilgore , Texas 75662

And our favorites...
Cut n Shoot, Texas
Gun Barrell City , Texas
Hoop And Holler, Texas
Ding Dong, Texas and, of course,
Muleshoe , Texas

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Hope Chapel hosting book signing event: June 12 at 7:00 pm (and a small thing about shouting)

My ecclesial alma mater, Hope Chapel, has kindly offered to host a book signing event at 7:00 pm on June 12.

My good friend and architect, Kelly Foster, will interview me that night. He'll ask questions about the content of the book, the process of editing it, the responses we've received so far to it (which have been anything but dull). Other questions we may explore are:

- How should churches use the arts well? (My initial comment: that depends on how you define "church," "arts" and "well")

- How should churches/pastors respond to artists? (My initial comment: in very sensitive, intelligent and multiplex ways. By sensitive I don't mean the "Don't be so sensitive" sense. I mean the NASA or orchid farmer sense. That's the sense that requires a great deal of attentive, patient care versus a blunt, impatient and generic approach)

- What role should Christians have in creating art in the world? (My initial comment: in light of a review by Matt Milliner forthcoming in First Things, I'd say that this is a hugely important question)

- What can artists teach churches and their pastors? (My initial comment: a great deal. I was reading the psalms this morning. In Psalm 100 the poet begins, "Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth." I suddenly found it a very funny phrase. I couldn't remember a single time in all my years at a Bible church that the congregation had been encouraged to shout. My Bible church did a lot of things right. But it didn't shout. I think it would have felt slightly awkward. Shouting at a UT football game: yes. Shouting at an idiot driver: yes. Shouting for joy to the Lord of all the earth: Hm.

If you count it up, you'll discover that the Psalter invites us to shout thirteen times. Now an artist understands what shouting is. Shouting is shouting. It is "to utter in a loud voice." But aside from charismatic and progressive churches, where expressive and experimental worship is valued and the fear of looking silly is at a low premium, how often do you find your congregation shouting for joy, not pretending to shout?

Because artists are in tune with the physical and emotional dimensions of human life, they read the psalmist's words and understand immediately what is being asked. What is being asked is that we use our diaphragm, our throat, and indeed our entire body, and join it to the emotion of joy in an acclamation of praise. Artists may also understand that you shout even if you don't feel like it. If the physical body leads, the feelings may follow. But the feelings are not necessary for the body to do its job in worship of the Almighty.

So next time you see your pastor or music/worship leader, ask them if it would be ok to include a moment of shouting during the worship service. Tell them you're "just wanting to be biblical," unless of course they take the view that none of the physical accessories of worship that you find in the OT apply to our more "spiritual," "inward," and (firecracker word here) "reverent" "NT" worship (yes, I just put New Testament in quotes). If that's the case, point them to the book of Revelation and ask them if shouting will be an appropriate response to the resplendent Lamb seated upon his technicolor throne. If shouting for joy will be appropriate in the eschatological age, when Christ will have established his new heavens and earth, then ask your pastor or worship leader if it's ok if you rehearse now what you will be doing then. If that doesn't persuade, then you'll have to settle for shouting in your closet. Or, alternatively, you could join the Von Trapp family on a mountain top.

One last thought. Sometimes I think it does the body good to shout. I have to believe that God invites us to shout because he knows that it will help us get things out that need to get out, and that won't get out otherwise. They won't get out with our normal talking voice. I played soccer for years. I found shouting on the pitch to be one of the most exhilarating and cathartic experiences. Odd to say, it was also an integrative experience. Yes, the soccer pitch and the sanctuary represent two rather different contexts, yet I am inclined to believe that shouting might have an appropriate and ordinate role in both.)

The lovely evening of June 12 at Hope Chapel (see here for directions) will also include:

- the visual art that was featured in the book
- a musical performance by professional musicians Ellen Johnson (flute), Karla Hamelin (cello) and Kim Perlak (classical guitar)
- possibly a modern dance piece (I hope, hope, hope)
- a book signing opportunity with moi
- and of course a reception at the end of the evening, courtesy of gourmand Randy Lewis (What is a Hope Chapel event without food?)

I am deeply grateful to Hope Chapel and to all the folks who are helping to make this possible. If you're in the area, please stop by. It's open to anyone and everyone.

The photograph above is from one of my favorite Hope arts events. I'm such a sucker for professional modern dance.

Friday, May 21, 2010

A Prayer for all Students & a good Poem

Courtesy of my good friend Brian Williams, this is a prayer written by St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274). I find myself subconsciously in a constant search for good prayers. I am especially anxious to find prayers that are occasionally and vocationally specific. For instance, there is a perfect little prayer called, "In times of trouble," that appears in my pocket-sized Orthodox prayer book. Or during our years at Hope Chapel I crafted a "Prayer for an Artist." It was my feeble attempt to mimic the prayer that iconographers pray before beginning their work.

Aquinas' prayer is a prayer that any student can pray. For that matter, it's a prayer that anybody in the business of learning can pray, whether you're a homemaker or a scholar. Earlier this semester I tried to craft my own prayer. At the time I found myself sloshing through my morning devotionals. I had no sense of rhythm or ritual. Lacking this, I found it difficult to begin my day of study properly. I might spend 3 (mostly wasteful) hours on the internet. I might manically plunge in to my work, because of a panicky sense that I would run out time that day, but without any clear sense of what that time was for or of a grace by which I might use that time wisely.

I needed words that would help focus my mind. I needed help to give my thoughts proper direction. By proper I mean I needed a way to orient my work as a student to an ordinate end, which would ultimately be God, but which immediately would be the practical circumstances of that day--whether excited or bored, clearheaded or disoriented, grateful to be a doctoral student at Duke or wishing I were elsewhere.

St. Thomas offers me good words to pray into. I'll obviously pray my own ad hoc prayer afterwards. But being the forgetful and sinful creature that I am, I need daily help to see ordinately, to work ordinately, to love ordinately and to let my labors become an ordinate service to the church.

The poem is by the Irish poet Patrick Kavanaugh. I discovered it in Ford and Hardy's book, Jubilate: Theology in Praise. I like Kavanaugh's poem for its fresh, crisp sense of God's creation. The photograph above is a peach blossom off a tree in our back yard.


Ineffable Creator...
You are proclaimed
the true font of light and wisdom,
and the primal origin
raised high beyond all things.

Pour forth a ray of Your brightness
into the darkened places of my mind;
disperse from my soul the twofold darkness
into which I was born:
sin and ignorance.

You make eloquent the tongues of infants.
Refine my speech
and pour forth upon my lips
the goodness of Your blessing.

Grant to me
keenness of mind,
capacity to remember,
skill in learning,
subtlety to interpret,
and eloquence in speech.

May You guide the beginning of my work,
direct its progress,
and bring it to completion.

You Who are true God and true Man,
Who live and reign,
world without end.


“Canal Bank Walk”

Leafy-with-love banks and the green waters of the canal
Pouring redemption for me, that I do
The will of God, wallow in the habitual, the banal,
Grow with nature again as before I grew.
The bright stick trapped, the breeze adding a third
Party to the couple kissing on an old seat,
And a bird gathering materials for the nest for the Word
Eloquently new and abandoned to its delirious beat.
O unworn world enrapture me, encapture me in a web
Of fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech,
Feed the gaping need of my senses, give me ad lib
To pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech
For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven
From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A fun interview with Christianity Today (plus "Why these books?")

Here is a link to an interview I did with Mark Moring at Christianity Today. I was honored to be asked. A nice and very talented man named Todd Bennett took my non-bearded mug at the Nasher Museum of Art.

Somebody asked me why I was reading the books I mentioned. Here is a brief reply:

1. George Herbert's poetry: One of my areas of interest is Anglican history and liturgy. Herbert was both a pastor and poet, and he's certainly one of the best bi-vocational parsons the Anglican tradition has ever produced.

2. David Maine's novel, Fallen: I think Maine is fantastic. I know not everybody likes his historical fiction narratives. That's fine. But if I could, and if I had a $100 million, I'd option all three of his biblical re-tellings and hand them over to Alejandro González Iñárritu, P. T. Anderson and Clint Eastwood to turn them into movies. A movie, of course, would never be able to replicate its literary prototype. To expect that, as so often is, is to set yourself up for disappointment. But a film could very well make strange again what for many has turned all too familiar: the biblical cosmos.

3. Kevin Vanhoozer's The Drama of Doctrine: I'm sympathetic to Vanhoozer's post-conservative perspective. Also, as somebody who has loved theater his whole life, I love his dramatic reading of theology.

4. Harry Potter in Spanish: I've got to take a language exam for my program. I left Guatemala at 13 and never really learned my "adult" or "theological" or "academic" Spanish. So I'm working my way through the Harry Potter series in Spanish to oil down a very rusty foreign language machinery. After Harry, it'll be Gustavo Gutierrez and Rene Padilla. Next summer it's German.

A question that did not make the print version, but which was fun to answer:

"Your wife teaches art to children, right? I think of Christ’s command for us to approach him as if we were children, so I wonder if there’s something about a child’s natural ability to “get” art in ways that we as adults don’t get – or have to work at. Any ideas?

My wife tells me that her students can be just as paralyzed by fear and self-doubt as adults. But they also have a capacity more easily to be unselfconscious. They’re less burdened with the shouldas and couldas. One of her eight-year old kids recently said, with a little twinkle in her eye, “Mrs. Phaedra, I tried to draw a mermaid, and mermaids are hard to draw, but I just drew it over and over and over and over and over again, because that’s what you have to do.” I love that as an image for spiritual disciplines. By God’s grace you do something over and over again, and you trust that He forms us in the midst of our discipline."

Excerpt from Mark Moring's write-up:

"Growing up as a missionary kid in Guatemala, David Taylor was learning the meaning of beauty before he even realized it. Taylor names the tropical landscape as one of five key elements in shaping his own identity as an artist. The others: listening to his mother play classical music on her grand piano; watching his father tend orchids in the backyard greenhouse; reading 'books outside my tradition' recommended by his Regent College professors, including Eugene Peterson; and 'being given permission to try and fail—again and again—by the leadership of Hope Chapel [in Austin, Texas], as I sought to discover what an arts ministry was supposed to be about.'"

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Festal Muchness & Cleansing Simplicity

I find that many Christians do not know what to do with excess. The image of "apes defecating coins" mingling with "hybrid beings handling money" in the 14th-century tale, Piers Plowman, captures well the popular sentiment: there's something inherently dangerous about it. Or take, for example, the miracle at the wedding of Cana. The event is read by commentators, rightly so, as an attestation of Jesus’ divine nature.

Yet while the abundant wine may be ascribed to God’s grace, that grace is often interpreted in
terms of “un-merited favor.” The juridical language outweighs the ontological. The factor of abundance is viewed as a husk to the kernel of divine witness, as an adjective to the noun of the σημεῖον or "sign." But the obvious question remains neglected: Why so exceedingly much?

Rarely, I suggest, is that abundance viewed as theologically important in itself, with implications for the way in which we are formed into the image of Christ and how we live out that image in the world.

Yes, excess can be dangerous. History bears that out, ah, rather excessively well. Indulgences, carnal and otherwise, abound. But we must still reckon with the excesses for which God is directly responsible: God's creation, Jesus' miracles, the Spirit's gifts. They exceed all presumed notions of need (cf. Matt. 26:6-13).

They also, granted, must be kept in dynamic tension with practices which the New Testament commends to us: practices of asceticism, purgation, simplicity and a healthy rhythm of life.

It's in light of this promising tension that I include here an excerpt from my chapter (on the dangers of art) in For the Beauty of the Church. Two chapters did not get excerpted by the time the book came out, mine and John Witvliet's. I'll save John's for last. In the meanwhile, here are a few things to chew on. I welcome your feedback, whether you're Quaker or Russian Orthodox.


You and I are creatures of the earth made by a God who established rhythms for the
preservation of life. Evening and morning. Summer and winter. Cross and resurrection. These are rhythms in nature and in history, rhythms both physical and spiritual, of plenty and of scarcity. I submit, in light of these rhythms, that God has created us, also, to experience the artistic rhythms of festal muchness and cleansing simplicity. Like so much in our life, our artistic health is a movement across a spectrum, from the maximal to the minimal, back and forth, each playing an important role in our maturation as disciples.

Consider Scripture’s witness to festal muchness. In I Kings 8:22-53 Solomon prays a dedicatory prayer for the newly built temple. He then throws a party at which he barbecues “so many sheep and cattle that they could not be counted or recorded!” Could not be counted? Surely that adds up to an exercise in bovine extravagance. At the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11) Jesus makes 600+ liters of wine, far surpassing any notion of need. In God’s creation of the universe there are vast surpluses which we cannot reduce to human utility. Creation generates a seemingly limitless combinations of tasty flavors, from the fiercely pungent Durian fruit to the Toasted Marshmallow Jelly Belly candy.

But the Scriptures also commend the practice of cleansing simplicity. “When you fast…” Jesus tells his disciple, reminding them that fasting is not an “if” but a “when” (Matt. 6:16). “Deny yourself and take up your cross,” he says in Mark 8:35. “I have learned to be content with little,” Paul tells the believers at Philippi and encourages them to learn likewise (Phil. 4:12). All throughout, the Scriptures commend to us a habit of giving ourselves to intentional acts of self-denial for the sake of re-orienting our lives. We regularly need our systems cleaned of clutter: noise, busyness, stuff, media, addictive attachments. The practice of cleansing simplicity, to paraphrase Richard Foster, not only cleans us out, it can bring to light the things that control us.

What might this dual rhythm look like in the artistic life of our church?

In one season you might choose to display an abundance of visual art—photography, prints, drawings, paintings, textile arts, banners—a bonanza of images giving witness to the graphic splendor of God’s creation. In another season you decide to exhibit only one work. You place one excellently crafted sculpture, say, at the center of congregational life—maybe at the entrance to the property or in the sanctuary itself. You allow your people to feast on this lone thing for three months, or even an entire year. You let it be long enough for them to feel both the absence of abundance and the tastiness of that one, ever-resonating work of beauty.

Or for one very, very long season you build a cathedral. A cathedral! Yes, like the kinds you find scattered throughout Europe. As outrageous as that may sound to our evangelical ears, it is no more outrageous than God’s creation of the teeming oceans. Is it worth the time, energy and expense? That depends on a lot of factors. But we may also ask, are the flora and fish of the Seven Seas worth the time, energy and expense? Is the nard that Mary poured over Jesus, valued at a year’s labor, worth the time, energy and expense? Is it worth the waste?

Jesus’ answer to his disciples overturns their assumed notions of worth. Extravagant beauty, whether in creation or in artistic acts, is not the problem. Selfish excess is. So if it seems good to you and to the Holy Spirit (and to the city council), then build a cathedral and let it give glory to God and real love to your neighbors. While you’re building your cathedral, commit to give generously to the poor and needy. Make your cathedral a welcoming place for all in the surrounding neighborhoods. Make it a gift of great beauty to the city that God so loves.

A last example of this rhythm can take place in our musical worship. Many of us use multiple instruments to give sound to our worship of God: orchestras, choirs, guitars, drums, pianos, stringed and percussion instruments, pipe and B-Hammond organs. At our best we celebrate the praise of God with sonic muchness. But what if twice a year we simplified the experience? What if we chose to sing with only one instrument or, dare we propose, none at all? How might that awaken our hearts afresh to God? How might that rescue us from confusing the heart of worship with the instruments of worship? Might it make us notice more the persons alongside whom we lift our praise heavenward? At the very least, giving ourselves to the practice of cleansing simplicity would go a long way to countering the negative effects of media super-saturation.

In the end, if we only have either festal muchness or cleansing simplicity we will tire out, with too much or too little. While I recognize a relativity to church cultures, where some will manifest one to a degree more than the other (the gregarious Brazilians vs the reserved Scandinavians), I believe that entering actively into these God-ordained rhythms will lead to the kind of ecclesial well-being that God has ordained for His people.