Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Poem: "On the True Use of Musick"

I've found myself chewing on several thoughts in light of the responses to my post about art's useful and non-useful status. I'd really like to explore them properly. But unfortunately I am also trying to finish up a final paper. Brain cells can only be distributed so much. I'm grateful for the generous tone of the comments and I'm excited to see where this will lead.

In the meanwhile, I'd like to also keep my habit of including poetry in my regular diet of posts. In honor of our discussion I've decided to post a portion of Charles Wesley's poem, "On the True Use of Musick," published at some point during the 1740s. Reading it makes me think: there really isn't anything new under the sun.

The one curious background note is that, despite the poem's apologetic for music's exclusively "religious" justification, his son, Charles Jr., seems to have spent his considerable talent and time playing "non-religious" (classical) music. This apparently upset many of the Methodists of the day, feeling it was too "worldly," and they let the Wesley family know it. At one point Charles Sr. felt compelled to pen a public a reply. In it he wrote:

"Whatever trade a boy is designed for, he must be taught that trade. If it be painting, he must be sent to the Zimmer; if navigator, to the sailors; if music, to the musicians.... With a good conscience and a single eye I build up my son for a Musician. I make no secret of it. The world knows it; and let the world make their most of it. He goes to perform at the Concert, he goes not to his diversion, but to his business.... If God gives my son grace, he will be preserved from the snares of his calling. He will be a Christian and a Musician too."

My opinion? I think it took a great deal of courage for Charles to write those words and then to make them public, despite the widespread criticism of fellow Methodists.

Here then is the poem.

1. Listed into the Cause of Sin,
Why should a Good be Evil?
Musick, alas! too long has been
Prest to obey the Devil;
Drunken, or lewd, or light the Lay
Flow'd to the Soul's Undoing,
Widen'd, and strew'd with Flowers the Way
Down to Eternal Ruin.

2. Who on the Part of GOD will rise,
Innocent Sound recover,
Fly on the Prey, and take the Prize,
Plunder the Carnal Lover,
Srip him of every moving Strain,
Every melting Measure,
Musick in Virtue's Cause retain,
Rescue the Holy Pleasure?

3. Come let us try if JESU's love
Will not as well inspire us:
This is the Theme of Those above,
This upon Earth shall fire us.
Say, if your Hearts are tun'd to sing,
Is there a Subject greater?
Harmony all its Strains may bring,
JESUS's Name is sweeter.

4. JESUS the Soul of Musick is;
His is the Noblest Passion:
JESUS's Name is Joy and Peace,
Happiness and Salvation:
JESUS's Name the Dead can rise,
Shew us our Sins forgiven,
Fill us with all the Life of Grace,
Carry us up to Heaven.

5. Who hath a Right like Us to sing,
Us whom his Mercy raises?
Merry our Hearts, for CHRIST is King,
Cheerful are all our Faces:
Who of his Love doth once partake
He evermore rejoices:
Melody in our Hearts we make,
Echoing to our Voices....

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Is Art Useful or Useless? Yes.

I know I've promised to write a response to Matt Milliner's review in First Things. I will. I promise. But it's a far more complicated review and I've simply not had the time to decide how exactly I want to respond. I also don't even know what to do with the comments it's generated. So I'm hop-scotching it.

For now I want to respond briefly to Steve Guthrie's review in the recent Stoneworks issue. He raises a concern that I've seen several times now and I'd like to address it, even if only in rough form. Here is how he put it:

"If, however, the collection reflects some of the wisdom the church has gathered concerning the arts, it also provides evidence that there are still issues to be thought through. Two of the essays in the collection, for instance, insist that the essential character of art is that it is “useless” (Andy Crouch); that it “isn’t for anything” (Barbara Nicolosi). Two other essays however – those by John Witvliet and Lauren Winner – argue against this common association of art with uselessness. Far from being a “purely academic” difference, these different ways of understanding what art is lead in fact to different visions of what art should be in the life of the church.

Another example: in some essays, contributors attempt to make amends for the church’s neglect of artists by extolling
artists as a uniquely gifted class of human beings. (Artists are uniquely insightful, uniquely sensitive to spiritual truth, uniquely responsive to meaning, and so on.) Artists, Barbara Nicolosi believes, “genuinely perceive spiritual realities,” which they then try “to get through to the rest of us” (118). In other places, essays encourage pastors to be patient in shepherding artists, because artists are (of course) brilliant but moody, creative but scatter-brained, sensitive but quirky, passionate but eccentric.

These characterizations, however—the Artist as High Priest of the Human Spirit and the Artist as Brilliant-but-Tortured Eccentric—are far from universal, timeless descriptions of creative people. Instead they echo a certain 19th-century Romantic vision of the Great Artistic Genius. Of course there are artists who fit these stereotypes. On the other hand, there are moody auto mechanics and creative, spiritually perceptive kindergarten teachers! I’ve also known Carnegie Hall-caliber musicians who—as human beings—were about as quirky and passionate as wallpaper paste.

The point is, in order to think theologically about the arts, we need also to reflect carefully upon what art really is.
We should welcome the arts into the life of the church. We should not, however, uncritically welcome every cultural stereotype about the arts. The essays in this book arise from a 2008 conference entitled “Transforming Culture: A Vision for the Church and the Arts.” As the title of the conference indicates, the church should not only participate in culture, but also transform it – and that includes our culture’s conceptions and misconceptions about art."

1. My first response concerns the book itself. By nature of the form, a "multi-author" book generates divergent and sometimes contradictory views on its subject matter. It certainly happened with For the Beauty of the Church. From the symposium two years back, I had a good sense of what to expect for the book. I could expect strong opinions and sharp disagreements. I state this in my introduction as a heads-up for the reader. What I couldn't, and wouldn't do, is soften the edges. There was always the temptation to re-write people's essays. But that was never my prerogative, only my temptation.

I didn't agree with everything that was said; nor did I agree with how things were said. But I felt then and still feel now that the reader is better off by leaving disputable statements in place. At worst, and I would rue this, the reader would leave confused. At best, the reader would be forced to think for him- or herself. Even better, I might dream that the reader would re-read the essays, slowly, carefully, and trace out the lines of logic within each essay and then determine the resonance of logic among the essays. From my end, yes, I would re-write the introduction and afterword to help guide the reader a little better. From the reader's end, I would hope for a patient reading of the essays before sending me reactionary emails. (Here I insert emoticon smiley face.)

2. My second response is this: that art is always both useful and useless, and that it needs to remain both. I feel that strongly enough to leave the statement standing naked and bold.

3. My third response follows on this statement by asserting that the terms need to be handled carefully. By "useful" I mean that art can serve a myriad purposes "beyond itself." Look around the room you're sitting in. Look at every single item in the room. Look outside your window, if you have one. Everything, literally everything, around you possesses an artistic aspect. Whether the quality is high or low, whether the art has served its useful purposes maximally or minimally, is a separate issue. The point is that art is perfectly capable of serving other domains: sports, education, business, politics, religion and so on. I would add that we should gladly welcome its service. God's world will be the better for it, especially when the art is done well. An artistically beautiful airport, in both its functional and gratuitous aspects, is always better than an ugly airport (new RDU throws down on old RDU). An artistically well-crafted cup of coffee is better than a cheap one. Hoosiers is a righteously better sports movie than Rocky V.

At some point in the modern era, artists began to argue for art's intrinsic worth. By that they meant that art could and, in many ways, should be enjoyed "for itself." Music need not be restricted to ecclesiastical or military purposes. Music could be enjoyed for the sheer delight of the sounds that the composer crafted. Hence concert music. Visual art likewise could be appreciated as an exercise in fascination with texture and light. Hence the museum culture. Drama could be enjoyed as a pedagogical aid to spiritual formation (the morality play) and as a tale of comedies (Shakespeare or Beckett). So on and so forth.

What this tradition argued, it seems to me, is a twofold apologetic: 1) that art, whatever medium, contains its own internal logic which needs to be understood as such and 2) that art can be enjoyed for that which it is, not only for that which it serves beyond itself. Sound, movement, color, play, taste, form--God vests all of creation with these aspects. God also invites us to take pleasure in them, to take pleasure, for instance, in the sound, movement, color, play and taste of an apple, not just in its gastrointestinal or commercial benefit. Artists come along, craft the stuff of creation into imaginative form and invite others to respond to the artwork. The artwork may be simple and silly, it may be difficult and troubling. It may, depending on the context, be either "useless" or "useful." Or like the umbrella art I've included here, it may be both!

The unfortunate inheritance of 19th-century romanticism is the notion of artist as "original genius." There's no time here for an extended discussion. Suffice it to say that, yes, we must remain alert to the philosophical notions we as artists import not just into the life of the church, but also into our own lives. The notion of artist as original genius has ruined many people's lives. I'll leave it at that.

4. Fourthly, the reasons why people may emphasize one over the other are complicated, and they often reflect the circumstances of the person rather than strictly aesthetic concerns. During the early years of my pastoral work I over-emphasized art's uselessness. For a long while I had carried in me a negative reaction to the demands of my conservative Christian culture. This culture could only envision a useful place for the arts. As I went along in my ministry, however, I discovered a good place for good, useful art. I realized, for example, that the problem wasn't "evangelistic art," the problem was bad evangelistic art. The church has often sought to employ art in service of gospel proclamation. The aim of course would be to do that well. This has never been an easy task, as many of us can testify, and where art or gospel are cheapened, the result is a distorted vision, with the possibility of malformation.

In terms of my book, one might want to explore the broader context for Crouch's or Nicolosi's strong, singular plea for art's useless quality. By reading other essays they've written, you might discover a richer meaning to their respective statements. I think Lauren Winner gives a pretty clear reasoning for her argument. But the rest of her writings will always supply a deeper context of meaning. Would they want to amend their essay two years after the symposium? I don't know. Is the collective result of all the essays more noise? Possibly. Could a constructive outcome result if we paid close attention to the particular arguments within each essay? I'd hope so.

Do all these authors recognize that no essay, no book will say perfectly what they might like to say? I think so. The hope of this book is that it will serve the company of saints who have gone before it and those who will follow after. The hope is that those who do their work with the help of this book might say things even better, more precisely, more thoroughly. And in so doing, my hope is that the church will be more deeply edified and that the artists who are nourished and nurtured in her bosom will flourish more fully.

5. Fifthly and finally, if you wish to investigate the matter further, I would recommend the following resources:

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art in Action
Rowan Williams, Grace and Necessity
Frank Burch Brown, Good Taste, Bad Taste and Christian Taste
John de Gruchy, Christianity, Art and Transformation
Robert Farrar Capon's, The Supper of the Lamb
Calvin Seerveld, Rainbows for a Fallen World
Jeremy Begbie, ed., Beholding the Glory

As always, I welcome your comments. I don't welcome them if you're the person or company who keeps dumping Chinese soft-porn links into my comments. Then I reject you ... as useful to pernicious ends and useless to the welfare of male souls.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Poem: "We Take The Sky"

In the effort to increase the poetry content of my life and to deter the word diarrhea that is daily generated by my visits to the internet, I'm going to post a poem every Tuesday. This week it's a poem by my good friend, Susanna Childress (wife to equally good friend, Josh Banner).

Her book, Jagged with Love, won the Brittingham Prize in 2005. Selected for this prize by Billy Collins, the collection includes work she created over a period of years that happened to overlap with her time in Austin. In 2003 Hope Chapel invited visual artists and word artists to collaborate for the Easter exhibit. Together they were to create an interpretation of the theme of resurrection. Here is a bit of the original instruction:

1. An image artist must find a writer to interpret their work or, the reverse, a writer can seek out an image artist to visually express their writing.

2. One of the two artists creates an original work, which the second artist then interprets. Who does which is decided between them.

3. It is at the discretion of the artists to what extent they communicate with each the meaning of the original work. That is, an artist may choose to allow the other to interpret their work with some or no comment; they may choose to explain what is depicted or intended, or leave it undefined.

Susanna ended up working with Laura Jennings (art above), and the final result was this poem. I recommend reading it twice in a row, even three times. For me reading this brings back such fond memories of the years we all shared as artists in Austin.


We take the sky, as if red is something we could own,
something we might find in the stillest of moments,
as if the earth is humane and wouldn't break
our bones. (None of His were broken. Not one, allegedly.)

Red is in the land too, is in the way we look at each other, the hardness
of our sleep, the need to fall down, to tell of the pox that swept Aunt Jess,
the drink that ushers Father, the path that never leads to wealth or rest
or health--but the one we always take. Shalom, we say. Buena suerte.

We always take the sky, fold it over ourselves,
the soil, run it across our skin and cling to it,
savoring the tart of a lemon, palming a bar of soap
even when our hands are clean, naming the insects

that fly across the white bulb of moon late at night,
rakishly loving the one who knows our smell,
saying (as if they are not questions), Isn't this how
we stay alive
and Why shouldn't I burrow here.

This is how we drum on, cold and ungrowing--
what more to be than alive? It all hums: so we die in small bits,
so the egg-shaped hollow that sits behind our stomachs,
so He died and rose again on the third day, so (what).

We take the sky, we scatter on the land. We fall down,
grab the everythings, the tiniest cures, fall down again,
wash ourselves in red and know, unwittingly, it is not enough.
More certain than anything: it will never be,

and then here, in the stillest moments, the story rushes again
(veil splitting, stone rolling, Mary, Peter, John, running,
linen and spices like a limp cocoon, the blur of angels, the one red
splash of a second--like a rose breaking open--when we know),

and somewhere inside us a small green seed pricks the dirt,
coiling for air. He soothes and stirs, fingertip-sized holes in His
hands, roaming the soil and the sky for our broken bones.
And the shaking on earth is our brand new lives:

Alleluia, we say, feeling even the empty oval of our stomachs rise.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Worthy Cause: The Argentinean Filmmaker

My good friend Jeffrey Travis proves two popular mottos: "Something begets something" and "No matter how hard you try, sometimes you still get squashed." Jeffrey is one of the smarter guys I know. He directed an engineering company back in the '90s, authored the computer book LabView, partnered with GE and John Deere, wrote a Wavelet-Like Analysis of Transient-Evoked Otoacoustic Emissions . . . thing, all while launching a film career and raising four kids.

He also speaks Spanish fluently, because raised in Argentina, and hosts a mean asado. How could I not like him?

Jeffrey, more than most people I know, embodies the virtue of perseverance. He's had every reason to quit, or worse, to settle. But he hasn't. And for that I admire him. Last year, in an act of uncommon faith, he moved his family of six to LA in order to pursue his calling as a filmmaker. He'd done quite well in Austin. It was from Austin that he'd produced the animated film FLATLAND, soon to be released as a 3D IMAX movie. It was from Austin that really everything got started with the ridiculously clever, award-gorging, little movie: WHAT'S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE?

But here's the thing about the movie world: Nobody knows anything. At least that's what screenwriter William Goldman once said. And he knew a thing or two about movies. Goldman had scripted Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President's Men, Marathon Men and, yes, that obscure picture called The Princess Bride. And Goldman, Academy Award-winner, still had the temerity to say, "Nobody knows anything." He also once said: "Life isn't fair. It's fairer than death, that's all."

What does this have to do with Jeffrey? He's making another film and I want to help him out, because I think Jeffrey has what it takes to make a great movie.

His current project, DRAGON DAY, can be classified as high concept, small scale. One of these days I hope he gets the chance to make a big idea on a big scale. In the meantime, though, I want to recommend him to you. If you ever wondered whether it mattered if you invested in an artist, I'm telling you that Jeffrey is worth your investment. Would $10 help? Absolutely. Would $10,000 or $1,000,000 help? Sure. Have I found Christians to be tall on talk but short on deed? Yes. But I feel not a shred of doubt that Jeffrey, or Jefe as I call him, deserves all the support in the world. He's the got the smarts, the skill, the perseverance, the ability to lead and, perhaps best of all, the humility to make a great film. He also happens to be a voracious reader of classical literature and magical realism.

I've always believed that something begets something. It is my hope is that this current "something" of Jeffrey's will lead to a much bigger something. Those of us who have yearned for intelligent art will, I believe, be the better for it. If you want to support his project, you can go here. If you know people with an extra stash of cash, who find Dorothy Sayers and Gabriel García Márquez more appealing than, well, you choose your lesser author, then please point them to Jeffrey.

Go here details of DRAGON DAY.

Jeffrey just informed me that they have three days left for fundraising. Well. That means that if his project resonates with you intuitively, now is the time to be a patron!

Thursday, July 08, 2010

A Poem: "Sentimental Education"

The pastor at the church I attended this past Sunday (Church of the Servant) read a poem by Tony Hoagland and it reminded me of a number of artists I know. If you want to read more of Hoagland's work, go here for a short bio note, here for a poem he titles "Beauty," and here for an essay he wrote, called "Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment."


And when we were eight, or nine,
our father took us back into the Alabama woods,
found a rotten log, and with his hunting knife

pried off a slab of bark
to show the hundred kinds of bugs and grubs
that we would have to eat in a time of war.

"The ones who will survive," he told us,
looking at us hard,
"are the ones who are willing to do anything."
Then he popped one of those pale slugs
into his mouth and started chewing.

And that was Lesson Number 4
in The Green Beret Book of Childrearing.

I looked at my pale, scrawny, knock-kneed, bug-eyed brother,
who was identical to me,
and saw that, in a world that ate the weak,
we didn't have a prayer,

and next thing I remember, I'm working for a living
at a boring job
that I'm afraid of losing,

with a wife whose lack of love for me
is like a lack of oxygen,
and this dead thing in my chest
that used to be my heart.

Oh, if he were alive, I would tell him, "Dad,
you were right! I ate a lot of stuff
far worse than bugs."

And I was eaten, I was eaten,
I was picked up
and chewed
and swallowed

down into the belly of the world.

"Sentimental Education" by Tony Hoagland, from Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty. © Graywolf Press, 2010

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Gloria in excelsis Deo: Or why it's good for Christians to sing songs in a foreign language

This morning I attended Church of the Servant in Grand Rapids, Michigan. COS, as they call it among themselves, is, I find, an odd duck in the Christian Reformed Church tradition. They're Dutch Reformed in heritage, which you'd guess pretty quickly by hearing them introduce themselves--VanderZicht, Klynstra, Van Oene, Spoelma, Boersma--but they're a liturgico-global, artistically ecumenical, justice-minded and narrative-midrashic preaching styled congregation. A generous spirit marks their leadership. I always enjoy visiting when I'm in town.

This morning the New Testament Scripture was read in two languages. A Rwandan man read the Luke passage in Kinyarwanda, while a college kid read the same text in English. Back and forth they moved through the reading and while it meant that the reading took an extra-long amount time, I was strangely moved by hearing Jesus' instructions to the "seventy" in Bantu.

At different points in the service we sang songs in a foreign tongue, a couple in Spanish, one in Zulu. On the back of our worship program I found a short essay written by the minister of music, Greg Scheer. Greg is a new friend with a whip-cracking wit. He came down for the symposium in Austin and I've enjoyed learning from him in the intervening years. I appreciated the thoughtful approach by which he sought to persuade us monocultural folk to be the catholic church, not just to state it in the Creed. I asked if I could reproduce his essay here. He said yes. If you would like to read more of his "Liturgy Lessons," go here and here.

Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Why do we sing languages other than English in worship at Church of the Servant? Doesn’t it betray our Protestant roots to sing songs or read scripture in languages other than the common tongue? Have we capitulated to multiculturalism with nary a thought for the theology of worship? Is this some strange campaign to annoy and befuddle members of the congregation? These are all good questions, and in this liturgy lesson I’ll try to untangle some of these important issues of language.

English is not the mother tongue of everyone at COS, but it is our common language. Therefore most of our worship is in English. Luther would be proud. But at the same time that we affirm English as our common language, we also want to celebrate our place in the historic and global Church. One of the ways we do this is to sing each other’s songs.

Sharing songs invites us into each other’s lives. Last week Matilda, Amie, Josephine and I had a great time singing songs from their churches in Liberia and Sierra Leone. By singing with them I was able to take on their cultural lenses and see God in a new way. This type of paradigm-expanding exchange goes on even when we sing the songs of people we don’t know personally. The music allows us to share our faith with our brothers and sisters around the world.

But, as a COS member recently asked me, doesn’t singing someone’s song imply a sort of solidarity with them? Yes, I think it does, and that’s a good thing. Singing songs from other lands doesn’t obligate us to agree with them fully about politics and social mores (that doesn’t even happen within our own church!), but it does help us focus on what we have in common in Christ. I’d be very pleased if the songs we sing at COS caused members to be more sympathetic when hearing world news, more willing to work for global justice, and less inclined to talk of “those people” when discussing things like immigration.

When we sing in other languages, doesn’t it distract us from worship, causing us to concentrate on the phonetics of the language rather than praising God? This can be a real danger. That’s why I turn to the
Gloria in Excelsis Deo System™ of congregational song for guidance. GEDS states that small phrases in foreign languages can be learned phonetically and can take on deep meaning. Do you find your Christmas worship distracted by singing the phrase “Gloria in excelsis Deo” during the hymn “Angels We Have Heard on High”? Probably not. In the same way, songs like “Santo, Santo, Santo” can be readily learned by an English-speaking congregation, and I would even argue that at COS we sing “Santo” in Spanish with more emotion than we do in English.

Singing with the Spirit and with understanding is a delicate balance. I pray that Church of the Servant’s approach to language in worship glorifies God and nourishes God’s people.