Sunday, August 29, 2010

Six Keys to be Excellent at Anything (if you can figure out what to do with the keys)

In honor of the first day of term, which occurs earrrrly Monday AM, I copy here a bit of good advice, courtesy of Tony Schwartz. As with all good advice, especially the best kind, it's as good as it is elusive. Still, I've printed out the six keys, ignored the cheesy "key" part, and pasted it on the wall of my office. It would do me right to pay attention to this advice.

My favorites, if it were possible, are #2, #5 and #6. But they're all good. The advice comes via the Harvard Business Review, so it's at least worth a serious once-over.

1. Pursue what you love. Passion is an incredible motivator. It fuels focus, resilience, and perseverance.

2. Do the hardest work first. We all move instinctively toward pleasure and away from pain. Most great performers, Ericsson and others have found, delay gratification and take on the difficult work of practice in the mornings, before they do anything else. That's when most of us have the most energy and the fewest distractions.

3. Practice intensely, without interruption for short periods of no longer than 90 minutes and then take a break. Ninety minutes appears to be the maximum amount of time that we can bring the highest level of focus to any given activity. The evidence is equally strong that great performers practice no more than 4 ½ hours a day.

4. Seek expert feedback, in intermittent doses. The simpler and more precise the feedback, the more equipped you are to make adjustments. Too much feedback, too continuously, however, can create cognitive overload, increase anxiety, and interfere with learning.

5. Take regular renewal breaks. Relaxing after intense effort not only provides an opportunity to rejuvenate, but also to metabolize and embed learning. It's also during rest that the right hemisphere becomes more dominant, which can lead to creative breakthroughs.

6. Ritualize practice. Will and discipline are wildly overrated. As the researcher Roy Baumeister has found, none of us have very much of it. The best way to insure you'll take on difficult tasks is to ritualize them — build specific, inviolable times at which you do them, so that over time you do them without having to squander energy thinking about them.


Now lest we take ourselves too seriously this upcoming school year, I leave you with a fine piece of crisp prose. The observation that it entails also happens to be completely true. Or at least it's true for those of us who recognize ourself in the line. The line comes at the top of page 118 of Michael Chabon's poignantly written The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

"In the immemorial style of young men under pressure, [Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay] decided to lie down for a while and waste time."

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Retreat Update: Frederica Matthewes-Green!

I am pleased to announce that Frederica Matthewes-Green will be our second speaker at next May's "pastors to artists" retreat at Laity Lodge. I first met Frederica in the summer of 1998. I had driven up from Austin to the wild and wooly Cornerstone Music Festival which literally unfurled in the middle of nowhere Illinois, under the thick June heat. Frederica was one of the seminar speakers. I spoke to her afterwards and I remember leaving feeling very encouraged by her words to me. Our second exchange took place at a "C. S. Lewis" conference. That's the picture above. We're laughing about something, who knows what. But it was funny, and I had long, very straight hair.

Frederica is a completely delightful woman with a wide range of interests, not least of which is the arts. Her written work has appeared in the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, the Los Angeles Times, First Things, Books & Culture, Sojourners, Touchstone, and the Wall Street Journal.

She has published 9 books, including Facing East: A Pilgrim’s Journey into the Mysteries of
Orthodoxy (HarperCollins, 1997) and The Illumined Heart: The Ancient Christian Path of Transformation (Paraclete, 2001). In the past, her commentaries have been heard on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and Morning Edition. Her essays were selected for Best Christian Writing in 2000, 2002, 2004, and 2006, and Best Spiritual Writing in 1998 and 2007.

She has also appeared as a speaker at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont; at the Smithsonian Institute, the Aspen Institute, Washington National Cathedral, the Los Angeles Times Book Festival, the American Academy of Religion, the Veritas Forum--well, you get the point. She's good at what she does.

She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Baltimore, MD, where he is pastor and she is “Khouria” (“Mother”) of the parish they founded, Holy Cross Orthodox Church. Their three children are grown and married, and they have eleven grandchildren.

I'm excited to share this opportunity with her and hope you can join us too. I'm confident she will offer a beautiful perspective on the vocation of artists and on the work of shepherding them. Here is the earlier blog entry in which I announce our May 2011 retreat. Registration will open in the next couple of weeks, so stay tuned. And here is another picture from that Lewis conference. I'll give you a free book and a jar of homemade fig jam if you can identify all the people in the pic.

Friday, August 20, 2010

On Contemporary Worship Music: Songwriters I

“The Psalms illuminate the mind for the purpose of enkindling the soul, indeed to put it to fire. It may indeed be said that the purpose of the Psalms is to turn the soul into a sort of burning bush.”Stanley Jaki, Praying the Psalms

“Human beings come only with difficulty to any significant time of turning and transformation.” Frank Burch Brown, Inclusive Yet Discerning: Navigating Worship Artfully

The landscape of contemporary worship music (CWM) is a cross between a carnival and a grand theft auto zone. There's a little bit of everything plus everybody's got their guns blazing. If anyone tells you otherwise, they don't live in the 21st century. They live far away from the wild west where Christians point he-said/she-said/they-don't-glorify-God fingers at each other.

But it's not all bad, though the mean-spirited, snarky, cynical ad hominems abound, like this, for example:

"If there has ever been an age so myopically transfixed by its own importance and significance and a people so quick to dismiss its spiritual heritage, the age is ours and the people are evangelical Protestants."

I mean, c'mon. Are you serious? You're torquing the history, philosophy, psychology, sociology and theology angle in one doomsayer sentence. Hyperbolic statements like these are irresponsible, even if all-too common. I suggest that they are just as damaging as the bad music this (respectable) author decries. To put it bluntly: Statements like these are toxic.

This morning I have spent my time on two tasks. One, I've been listening to "preview all" samples of CWM on ITunes. So far we've previewed Sovereign Grace Music, Hillsong United (Australia and London), Red Mountain Music, Sojourn Church Music, Indelible Grace, Tim Hughes, Matt Redman, Keith & Kristyn Getty, Vineyard Music, Jesus Culture, Passion, Soul Survivor, Sandra McCracken, Vintage 21, David Crowder, Brian Moss, BiFrost, Brad Kilman and Robbie Seay Band. It's been a full morning. But let's get more quickly to the point of this post.

I'm preparing a talk that I will give at David Crowder's Fantastical Music Conference in late September. The talk is based on a paper I've written for a course here at Duke. Task two for today is to revise it. Unfortunately it's turned into a 31-page, single-spaced paper, bloated with unnecessary quotes and un-clear transitions. This afternoon we kill the darlings. Editing is everything, as Dr. Gordon Fee often told us. My intention over the next month is to post a few excerpts from my Crowder talk.

But before I conclude today's post, let me say two things. One, I don't think that I will be saying anything particularly new. Others have said it before me, and in some cases they have said it far more elegantly. Two, my heart is positively inclined towards the rambling territory that is CWM, especially with respect to the pop-rock and folk variety which occupies the primary attention of my paper.

I met with Bruce Benedict this past Monday. Bruce runs a fine blog called Cardiphonia. At the end of our shared cafe negro (té negro, in my case), he loaded me up with about 50 CDs of CWM. (He also kindly oriented me to the who's who and what's what of Reformed/Presbyterian church musicianship.) Some of the music Bruce gave me is so so, some it is good. Some of it is plain wacky. Bruce knows that. But since there is little new under the sun, my aim will be to trace points of connection and to discover ways in which I might say something of genuine service to the CWM movement.

Oh, one more thing. Lester Ruth said something recently that bears repeating. In an essay where he analyzed the Trinitarian content for CCLI's top 25 between the years of 1989-2005, he concluded, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the Trinitarian orientation was faint. Yet he ended his essay with a nice twist. If CWM songwriters are not writing music that is suffused with Trinitarian content, he argues, then the problem lies at a larger scale. The problem lies at the level of congregations and pastors and teachers. "Christians," he notes, "will write and choose more Trinitarian songs only if love for the Trinity resides deeply in their hearts." That is such an important statement. And again: "Songs will shift as Christians learn to love the Triune God for being Triune." The title of Lester's essay is "Lex amandi, Lex credendi." By that he means to say that what you love, you will believe, and in fact you will more likely write songs about the things that you love rather than simply believe.

My point is this. The burden of responsibility for writing theologically sound music should not be placed exclusively on songwriters. The responsibility should rest jointly on congregations along with pastors, teachers, artists and theologians. Together we should carry the responsibility for holy and holistically nourishing songs. Together.

Who is my neighbor? My neighbor includes songwriters whose music I find poetically philistine--or esoteric. Who is my neighbor? It is the songwriter whose music comes across theologically shallow and musically dense or narrow. Who is my neighbor? It is the songwriter whose music falls into a lyrically incoherent or constipated pattern. Who is my neighbor? My neighbor is all the songwriters I've mentioned above plus all the ones I haven't--the Lutheran high churchmen, the Methodist activists, the Anglican sophisticates, the Pentecostal enthusiasts and the emergent/alternative/hipster/restless young artists who are trying to make sense of things as best as they can.

I'm new to the CWM neighborhood, I readily confess. I hope that the comments I offer are appropriately tempered. And by God's grace I will learn how to be a good and helpful neighbor.

Suggested Reading:
Here are a few books that I've found especially useful in my research this summer. Apologies for the bunched-up format.

The Message in the Music: Studying Contemporary Praise & Worship, edited by Robert Woods and Brian Walrath; Hymnology: A Collection of Source Readings, edited by David W. Music; Exploring the Worship Spectrum: 6 Views, edited by Paul E. Engle; Protestant Worship: Traditions in Transition, by James F. White; Living in Praise: Worshipping and Knowing God, by David F. Ford and Daniel W. Hardy; Worship Old & New, by Robert Webber; Doxology: A Systematic Theology, by Geoffrey Wainwright; Te Deum: The Church and Music, by Paul Westermeyer; The Great Worship Awakening: Singing a New Song in the Postmodern Church, by Robb Redman; Contemporary Worship Music: A Biblical Defense, by John M. Frame; Emerging Worship: Creating Worship Gatherings for New Generations, by Dan Kimball; The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship, by John Witvliet; Worship by the Book, edited by Don Carson; Inside Out Worship: Insights for Passionate and Purposeful Worship, edited by Matt Redman; and Worship at the Next Level: Insight from Contemporary Voices, edited by Tim A. Dearborn and Scott Coil.

I leave you for now with the beautiful words of St. Augustine, in his commentary on Psalm 149:1.

“My brothers and sisters, my children, O seedlings of the catholic church, O holy and heavenly seed, O you that have been born again in Christ and been born from above, listen to me—or rather, listen to God through: ‘Sing to the Lord a new song’. Well, I am singing, you say. Yes, you are singing, of course you are singing, I can hear you. But do not let your life give evidence against your tongue. Sing with your voices, sing also with your hearts; sing with your mouths, sing also with your conduct. ‘Sing to the Lord a new song’.

You ask what you should sing about the one you love? For of course you do want to sing about the one you love. You are asking for praises of his to sing. You have been told, ‘Sing to the Lord a new song’. You are looking for songs of praise, are you? ‘His praise is in the church of the saints’. The praise of the one to be sung about is the singer himself. Do you want to sing God his praise? Be yourselves what you sing. You are his praise, if you lead good lives.”

Monday, August 16, 2010

Poem-ish: A Terrible, Horrible, No Good...

Some days you have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Today our nice renters in Austin emailed me. They wrote to say that they had mice running around the house, our Austin house. I sighed. I called the pest control people to ask if they could look into it, and I felt a little money slipped through our hands.

Last night a mean man punched Phaedra's car and broke a window. For no reason. Phaedra at the time was inside our church, taking advantage a healing prayer service. I was at home working on our finances. We went to bed feeling queasy.

An evil deer has eaten all the beans in our garden. A fungus ate all our peaches--a fungus and a gluttonous squirrel. Last month a foolish driver hit-my-car-and-ran. He ran in the middle of the night. He or she or they did not leave a note on my car to say they were sorry. The nice insurance people at USAA said that I had a "total loss" vehicle on my hands. I dated my wife in this car. I spent my best years at Hope Chapel driving around in this car. My car, affectionately called grandpa, ran just fine. Now the salvage yard folks are coming on Wednesday to take grandpa into permanent retirement, and a lot more than a little money has slipped through our hands.

I also discovered today that my health insurance went up.

We forgot to call our nephew on his birthday. We feet rotten about it. I can't find the title on my car. I think it's up in the attic with all the things we hid away in boxes when we drove out of Austin a year ago. My knee buckled on me when I played soccer on Saturday. It hurts today and I'm worried that it's badly damaged. I worked on our budget this morning. The red numbers out-number the black numbers.

I'm not finished writing three final papers. The fall term begins two weeks from today and I feel anxious. The mean man who punched Phaedra's car window stole the car manual. Phaedra said she would have given it to him (or was it her?) for free. Today she discovered sparkly, window-like glass at the tip of her index finger.

We're a little sad today that we don't have kids yet. We're a little extra sad. The smart eye doctor this afternoon said my eyes had a "very unusual" condition. He said I have an "astral band" running across the cornea of my eye. The astral band looked beautiful. "Can I still get lasik someday?" I asked. He said, "I don't know," and smiled kindly.

I don't sleep well at nights. I'm soaking my toes in vinegar at the moment. (Don't ask.) The black part in my wedding band is wearing off. Duke University just charged me a silly late fee. People die in the google news feed all the time. And Phaedra just burned herself canning figs.

Some days you just have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. You know people in other parts of the world have very bad days all the time. I know people like that. Even in Australia. Of course it's not all bad; it's rarely all bad. But sometimes you just get bummed out. You get bummed out and you can't shake it.

So I'm copying here a bit of Judith Viorst's delightful tale, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. For all of you who are artists and feel like you've had one too many in recent memory, this is honor of you.

Tomorrow will be a new day. For that we give thanks.

"I went to sleep with gum in my mouth, and now there’s gum in my hair. And when I got out of bed this morning, I tripped on the skateboard, and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running. And I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day………..I think I’ll move to Australia.

I could tell it was going to be a Terrible, Horrible, No good, Very bad day. At school Mrs. Dickens liked Paul’s picture of the sailboat better than my picture of the invisible castle. At singing time she said I sang too loud. At counting time she said I left out 16. Who needs 16?

I could tell it was going to be a Terrible, Horrible, No good, Very bad day. There were two cupcakes in Phillip Parker’s lunch bag and Albert got a Hershey Bar with Almonds, and Paul’s mother gave him a piece of jelly roll that had little coconut sprinkles on the top. Guess whose mother forgot to put in dessert?

It was a Terrible, Horrible, No good, Very bad day. That’s what it was because after school my mom took us all to the dentist, and Dr. Fields found a cavity just in me. “Come back next week and I’ll fix it,” said Dr. Fields. “Next week,” I said, “I’m going to Australia.”

On the way downstairs the elevator door closed on my foot. And while we were waiting for my mom to go get the car, Anthony made me fall where it was muddy. And then when I started crying because of the mud, Nick said I was a cry-baby. And while I was punching Nick for saying cry-baby, my mom came back with the car and scolded me for being muddy and fighting.

I am having a Terrible, Horrible, No good, Very bad day. I told everybody. No one even answered.

It was a Terrible, Horrible, No good, Very bad day. There were lima beans for dinner, and I HATE limas. There was kissing on TV, and I HATE kissing. My bath was too hot, I got soap in my eyes, my marble went down the drain, and I had to wear my railroad-train pajamas. I hate my railroad-train pajamas. When I went to bed Nick took back the pillow he said I could keep and the Mickey Mouse night-light burned out and I bit my tongue. The cat wants to sleep with Anthony, not with me.

My mom says some days are like that. Even in Australia."

Monday, August 09, 2010

In Praise of Excellent and "not-so" Excellent Liturgical Dance

Once again I have found that the good folks over at Transpositions have afforded an occasion for me to clarify my thoughts. In this case the clarification relates to a comment I make in my own chapter. I respond first to Jenn's question and then to a question that installation artist Dayton Castleman poses in the comments section.

Jenn writes:

"As a second point, Taylor suggests that artistic excellence is “contextually relative”, that is, it is “relative to the context in which it is done and why it is done.” I find this specific point more confusing in relation to one of the dangers Taylor addressed earlier—the making of bad art. If artistic excellence is relative to context, then how can we determine what is good and bad art? Are context and taste posed against each other here? My initial thought is that they needn’t be diametrically opposed, but I’m left wondering how we might determine good or bad art when it is so dependent on context."

Jenn, let me offer two responses to your entry. One, with my chapter I could either take the helicopter ride and try to cover as much landscape as possible or I could pick a few dangers and mine them deeply. It was a choice between general investigation and specific investigation. I chose the former. I felt that in the long run it would be more useful to readers if they got a sense of the whole. The weakness is that they would be left with little concrete help. I made my peace with that possibility, even if it meant a negative reception of the chapter. In the long run other books will be written to address particular issues. Some good ones have already have been written. In the end, the overall project of my book remained singular: to help pastors and artists to see the big picture.

Two, with regard to your question under the "contextually relative" section, I'll say this. If I remember correctly, the example I gave around the issue not of artistic excellence but of aesthetic excellence was of kids dancing during the corporate worship. My contention is this: I do not believe that the only criterion that matters in the context of corporate worship is that of aesthetic excellence. To believe that is to want the church to behave and to be something that it is not.

The church is not a gallery. It is not a performance hall nor is it established to enter into competition with fine or popular art. The church is the corpus Christi, the domus Dei birthed at Pentecost. The church is the redemptive society, of saints and sinners but mostly sinners, through which the Triune God seeks to bring about the healing of the world. As such we must let it remain a beloved gathering of the broken, of pilgrims on the way. I believe, additionally, that there are ways that we can instantiate this truth rather than simply allude to it or worse, behave in ways that contradict the church's calling. I believe also that this is easier said than done. To live this way requires a great deal of wisdom and humility.

My point is this, and it is a dual point which I'll try to state as carefully as possible:

First, the church must be a place where things that are not always aesthetically excellent
are given admission into its life. This might seem like a provocative point. I don't intend it to be. In my chapter I argue that other excellencies must be acknowledged as equally good for the well-being of the church. The reason why, on occasion at least, children might be given a chance to dance before God in the presence of the congregation is that children--especially those who haven't been trained at junior Julliard academies--have something important to contribute to the church. It can be any number of things that they contribute.

For example, it may be a way for a church to say that children have a role to play in the discipleship of this church and that this is a good way for us to embody that truth. It may involve a declaration that "little ones" are welcome too. It may suggest that the "least of these" belong in the midst of the assembly. It may be a way for a church to declare that rough edges and wobbly performances have a place within the larger scheme of its ecclesial life. This isn't necessarily to make rough edges and wobbly performances a normative aspect. "Rough and wobbly" cannot be what the church aspires to in its artistic life; but neither should it be proscribed altogether.

It might simply be a way for a church to define itself in deed and not only in word. Other churches may not want to define themselves in this way. That's fine. But to offer a colloquial summary of my basic point, there are two kinds of churches: those that get embarrassed when something does not go according to (a seamlessly smooth) plan and those churches who laugh it off as just another day as the body of Christ.

Let me make explicit what I am not advocating. I am not advocating slovenly, thoughtless worship. I am not advocating an antinomian view of church life. I do not believe that any art will do or that all that matters artistically is the sincerity of your heart. I believe in spending 20-25 hours a week preparing for a sermon (which I did). I believe in rehearsals (lots). I believe you can only get two out of three: good, cheap and fast. I believe in training and education. I believe in the wisdom of experience. And I believe that the Spirit both works through and works beyond our preparation.

I am, in short, advocating a broad concept for the idea of excellence. I am also challenging perfectionistic attitudes and mentalities.

Second, if I allowed the kids to dance one Sunday morning, for whatever reason, that does not mean that I have shut off my aesthetic excellence brain. As a pastor I have hopefully educated the congregation well enough that they will know the difference between the kids' dance and the dance that professional modern dancers perform in the service of the liturgy--whether in complement to Scripture-reading or to the preaching or to the Lord's Supper or any other aspect. If the congregation has been educated properly, they will not confuse the two artistic performances. They will understand that one is rough and wobbly and that the other is quite possibly sublime.

They will hopefully understand this in the same way that I put
up on the walls of my house art by my nieces and nephews as well as art by professional painters, photographers, calligraphers, etc. I will not be confused by the artistic merit of the two kinds of art. I will simply understand that they perform two distinct functions in the context of our home. I am proud of both. Both enlarge my life. Both inspire me to become more than I am yet today. And that, hopefully, is what might also happen in the context of a church's life that allows the kids (on occasion) and the professional dancers (as the occasion allows) to serve the congregation through the language of dance.

I confidently believe that the church is better off when both kinds of dance happen. (See, for example, here and here.) I also believe we could learn a thing or two from the 4th-century Egeria's experience of "processional dance" through the streets of Jerusalem (see here also) as well as from the ridiculous, dancerly joy that Hasidic Jews experience around the feast of Simchat Torah.

Laslty, Dayton Castleman responded to this statement of mine: "I do not believe that the only criterion that matters in the context of corporate worship is that of aesthetic excellence." He writes:

"I agree, but this raises a question for me that I have batted around for a long time: Are non-music art forms evaluated with a different aesthetic standard in the church than musicians are? Are dancers and visual artists and poets held to more relaxed standards than singers and guitar players and piano players?"

Without access to quantitative data we can only go on anecdotal evidence. Have I witnessed this pattern of behavior? Yes. Do I think it's widespread? Very likely. Is it discouraging to non-musical artists and detrimental to the well-being of the church? I believe yes. Does it result often in cheesy art that reflects a lack of respect for the craft? Bingo. Do Protestants display this behavior in disproportionate measure because of their theological history? Most certainly.

To reinforce my point above, my argument is a principled one. In principle the church is better off when the general thrust of its aesthetic and artistic life is marked by beauty, excellent craftsmanship, thoughtful concern for context and a care-filled love of God and neighbor. But as always there will be exceptions. As always, to my mind, there should be a place in the assembly of God's people for the children to dance. Am I envious of the Shakers? Yep.

[Artwork near Dayton's question: Dayton Castleman, "Paper Shredder," 2007]

Friday, August 06, 2010

Are Artists Special: No and Yes.

The good folks over at Transpositions have generously taken on a discussion of each chapter in my book. Thus far they've engaged Crouch, Witvliet, Peterson, Winner, Nicolosi and Banner.

In a comment that Jim posed to Anna's entry on Barbara Nicolosi's chapter, he asks, with respect to the notion of artist-as-genius:

"Even though I am in agreement with what you have said, I still wonder whether or not it is possible to glean some positive value from the romantic concept of the artist; whether or not the romantic concept of the artist is correct in certain regards. So, then, one could add an additional twist to the three questions you pose at the end. How does the romantic concept of the artist make a positive contribution to the Christ-likeness of the creative person, to the discipleship of the artist, and to the critique and support of artists by the church?"

I attempted to reply in brief, but failed. I was far from brief. In the interest of further cross-pollinating discussion, I'm including my reply here.

Anna, great post. Thank you. As you rightly observe--and Jim, you as well--this is a "difficult" chapter, to the extent that Barbara makes strong, sharp-edged statements. I'm glad the chapter belongs to this book. [I respect Barbara and am deeply grateful for the hard, sweaty, bloody labors she's faithfully performed over the years.] Hers represents an important perspective; it also represents a written form of a public talk that, on the night Barbara spoke at the symposium, generated an effusion of positive response from the several hundred artists in the room. In a word: the artists felt known. That is, they felt sympathetically known through the choice and intensity of words which Barbara used. (The several hundred pastors held on for the blustery, often humorous but always unapologetically straight-shooting talk.)

I only have time for a quick response here. Hopefully I'll have more time over the weekend.

First, as with all things in the book, so much of the discussion turns on the definition and application of terms. Jim, I love the question you posed at the end of your comment. That would make for a fantastic article, dissertation, book, symposium and long night of adult beverages.

Second, Murry Watts, who lives nearer to you guys than to me, gave a nice talk at the Laity Lodge a few years ago in which he explored the dual idea of artist as servant and as prophet. Again, much of the persuasiveness of his talk hung on the use of his terms. But I appreciated the way he brought both metaphors to play in the vocation of the artist.

Third, Paul Westermeyer, in his chapter on the psalms in Te Deum: The Church and Music, engages Gerhard von Rad's argument that, from an OT context, one should not pit the priests against the prophets. They operated together, von Rad insists, for the common well-being of Israel. Westermeyer goes on to explore this idea in relation to the church musician. He notes that the temptation has been for the church musician to see him- or herself either in the priestly cast or in the prophetic cast. For Westermeyer this leads only to problematic outcomes.

Lastly, while we are right, with regard to artistic identity markers, to avoid the excesses of the 19th century Romantic movement as well as the excesses of the Pragmatic movement, we must still ask ourselves what is unique in the life and work of certain artists. I say "unique" not over against other persons or callings; and I certainly think we will be wasting our time if we want to protect artists in a more-special-than-thou category. I say "certain artists" because artistic dispositions, personalities, labors and callings are as varied as the human race.

But still. After fifteen years of shepherding artists, I cannot ignore the "trafficking in thin places" quality that I observe in some artists. For the record, I do not think this quality becomes an excuse for self-indulgent existence. Nor do I think artists are exempt from voluntary and regular service in the church nursery, or wherever they might be needed. But when artists, prophets and mystics get lumped into the same group, as they often have throughout history, I think there is something worth giving careful attention to. I think they share a "family resemblance." I think they perform an important, even down-to-earth service to the church. And I do not think we are better off by presumptively, and thoughtlessly, dismissing that claim as chauvinist nonsense.

That, Jim, is why I think your last question deserves serious thought and a serious answer. A discussion like this, I imagine, would take us far beyond Romantic philosophy into discussions (or disputes) around theological anthropology, spiritual theology, psychology and perhaps even cultural or ritual studies. But it sure would make for a great evening of conversation. If we all agreed to be humble, to count to ten when we felt provoked and to not take ourselves too terribly seriously, then ... well then I'd have to move to Scotland with my wife and turn it into a long weekend.

As always, thanks to the Transpositions crew for thoughtfully engaging the material.

Monday, August 02, 2010

May 26-29, 2011 -- The next ministers-to-artists retreat

[Prefatory note: the kind folks over at the "Transpositions" blog, aka grad students associated with the Institute for Imagination, Theology and the Arts at St. Andrews University, have engaged a lively discussion not only of my book, but also of the conversation around useful and useless art. It looks lively already.]

Good people, we have a date for the next "ministers to artists" retreat at the Laity Lodge. That deserves an exclamatory sentence! On May 26-29, 2011, Thursday through Sunday, the Laity Lodge will gather another great bunch of folks who feel called to shepherd artists and who want to grow in the skill required to shepherd them well.

Who should come?
If you sense a strong desire to care for artists, to seek their well-being, to help them grow in the knowledge of the Triune God, to aid the work of integration in their lives, to mentor their fledgling efforts and to do whatever you can to help them flourish in their respective callings and occupations, then you're a good candidate for this retreat.

You may work in the context of the church, officially or unofficially, or in a para-church setting, or in an educational institution or in a professional society, or you may be a floater who feels called to be in the lives of artists whenever, however and wherever the Spirit leads. This retreat is for you.

You may have decades of experience or you may just be starting out in this work. This retreat is for you.

Where will this retreat be?
It'll take place again at the beautiful Laity Lodge. Here is the info about the retreat this past spring on Laity Lodge's website. Registration for 2011 will open soon.

Who will be the speakers be?
At this point we are still working on finding our second speaker. I will be in the mix somehow. But we also value giving the retreat participants a chance to share knowledge, skills and experiences with each other and we will carve out time accordingly to ensure that that happens.

What was it like the past two years?
See here for a brief description of year one. See here an advanced note about this past spring. Here is one participant's report of the recent retreat.

Here, finally, is a good word from somebody who attended both retreats. His name is Jeffrey Guy and he helps lead an arts ministry at Trinity Anglican Church in Atlanta, Georgia. He's also quite a fine visual artist.

"Entering the retreats with skeptical expectations, I met authentic Christians who shared my passions relating to the arts. I witnessed also how the Holy Spirit is at work in His body, the Church, and discovered art's importance in God's economy. All of the lectures by accomplished artisans and pastors (and I've been twice now) were meaningful. However it was the retreaters encountered at Laity that by far resonated, inspired and instructed me by way of their collected experience. Whether we were trekking through the canyon, enjoying a delicious meal or putting our hands together for some creative time, it far surpassed my expectations and laid my skepticism to rest. These retreats were where I found my 'tribe'."

[NB: the artwork is by the lovely Shannon Steed Sigler. She created the work to accompany her master's thesis which she wrote on Charles Wesley's hymnody. This fulfilled the requirements of her program at Asbury Seminary.]

[UPDATE: Frederica Matthewes-Green will be one of our featured speakers. See here for info.]

(Folks who attended this past retreat at Laity.)