Sunday, November 28, 2010

James Hunter's Vision for Cultural Flourishing

I just finished Hunter's book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. I quite liked it. But I think an equally epic and quite possibly more accurate title could have been, To Change the World: Why It Involves More Parts To Generate A Flourishing Culture Than Christians Usually Assume and Why Christians Should Be Involved In All These Parts and At All Levels Rather Than Only Their Favorite Parts and Levels. Or something like that.

This entry will not attempt anything near a review. I don't have the time. Final papers bears down upon me once again. I do, though, want to mention a few things. One, I strongly recommend the book, because I think it's an important book. What Hunter has accomplished in nearly 300 pages of compact writing and small type is impressive. He has connected biblical, theological, political, sociological and historical lines of inquiry in a way that brings about a coherent picture of cultural life. That can only be done well by someone who has spent the better part of life studying the way societies tick. Artists will do well to read it. Those who care about the arts would too.

Two other things stood out. One, I liked the way he rendered the idea of "elites" and the role they place in the shaping of society. I've long felt that the ragged and uneven role that believer artists play in society owes in large part to a) our ideas about art ("our" = conservative Protestants), b) our dim view of the vocation of the artist and c) our unwillingness to invest in our young people to help them enter the best art schools and to pursue excellence at the highest levels of the profession. But, well, nothing original there. I found Hunter's exposition to be persuasive and would only fear the ways that readers might run with it in directions that Hunter repeatedly warns us against.

Two, I found the following bit at the end of his chapter, "Toward a Theology of Faithful Presence," to be worth pasting on my office bulletin board:

"As to our spheres of influence, a theology of faithful presence obligates us to do what we are able, under the sovereignty of God, to shape the patterns of life and work and relationship--that is, the institutions of which our lives are constituted--toward a shalom that seeks the welfare not only of those of the household of God but of all. That power will be wielded is inevitable. But the means of influence and the ends of influence must conform to the exercise of power modeled by Christ.

"Thus, when the Word of life is enacted within the whole body of Christ in all of its members through an engagement that is individual, corporate, and institutional, not only does the word become flesh, but an entire lexicon and grammar becomes flesh in a living narrative that unfolds in the body of Christ; a narrative that points to God's redemptive purposes. It is authentic because it is enacted and finally persuasive because it reflects and reveals the shalom of God."

Curiously enough, the language of that last sentence resembles the language Barth uses to describe beauty.

I confess that I don't feel ready to say (at length) what I think the book got right and wrong. I'd like to chew on its contents a little longer. In fact, starting tomorrow, Monday, I'll have a chance to spend a bit of focused time with the author. That will surely help the understanding process. I've been invited along with other Anglican leaders (mostly pastors, I think) to engage the ideas in Hunter's book over the course of three days. We'll gather in Charlottesville, Virginia, and
Greg Thompson, pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church, will function as our gracious host. I'm grateful for the invitation and I'll be curious to see what kinds of comments are made about the arts.

Speaking of the arts, there's one little thing that Hunter did that chaffed ever so slightly. He's not alone in this, but every time it popped up I wanted to grind my teeth. You'll probably groan or sigh when you read this, but maybe not. When the arts came up as a topic, either on their own or in connection with other industries of culture, he would often write "arts and music" or "arts and literature." What's wrong here, you ask? Not the end of the world, of course, but it's one of the subtle ways that the arts get misrepresented (misconstrued?) and that plenty of artists become relegated to the margins--yet again.

Binary phrases like this lead you to believe that the arts at the end of the day involve music, literature and the arts. Which arts? Typically the visual arts. This perpetuates, I'm afraid, a bias for arts which are perceived as privileged--again, music, literature and some visual art--and against arts which usually don't make the list of coveted media. Such as what? Such as theater, film, dance (modern, ballet, contemporary), the graphic arts, the electronic media arts or the performance arts, for starters. I give Hunter the benefit of the doubt on this, and happily so, but for the record here is my plea. Either write "arts" and refer by this to all media or spell them out or tell your reader why you've chosen to highlight only a few. Please don't assume that it's obvious why you've chosen only a few. If you do, you'll be perpetuating unhelpful and, in the case of actual artists, hurtful ways of perceiving--yes you guessed it--the arts.

One last thing. If I were to venture a critique of Hunter's narrative of cultural behavior, it would be this: that his primary error was one of omission, not of commission. It was not so much what he said and how he argued his case that I found troubling. I found these positively stimulating, inspiring, challenging and illuminating. Where he failed, if I can use this language, is in a lack of charity for his interlocutors. His rhetoric lacked a certain grace, especially in Sections I and II. By Section III he seems to have recovered an irenic, invitatory rhetoric. But prior to that it felt like reading a polemic inspired by Hell's Kitchen, where Hunter sliced and diced the "common view." He judged a "failure" the views of folks like Colson, Pearcey, Guiness, Wallis, McLaren, Yoder, Hauerwas and Crouch (et al).

Let me be personal here. I didn't like the way he served up and summarily dismissed my friend Andy Crouch's book Culture Making. (See here for Andy's own take.) While Andy does not develop ideas about power and networks at the same comprehensive length that Hunter did, Andy places these ideas centrally in his own third section, entitled "Calling." I've found myself frequently referring in public to Andy's 3s, 12s and 120s, and intuitively perhaps I have always thought of the 120s as a network of sorts.

From reading Hunter's re-telling of Culture Making you'd never know Andy had constructive things to say about networks and power. Andy covers similar territory as Hunter but--and this really mystifies me--Hunter fails to show points of continuity between his ideas on human flourishing and those of his colleagues in this business of observing, analyzing and prescribing ways to live well in our North American culture.  It made me sad, actually. I also found it to be a weakness of the book. In a way, it undermined his presumed goal, which at the very least included a resounding affirmation of the role that the church and all its motley members play in contributing to the well-being of a culture. Had Hunter unpacked his ideas while bringing along his fellow travelers, such as Andy, he would have modeled a communal way of doing scholarly work. Telling and showing together would have produced a powerful witness to the beauty of the ecclesia Christi. As it is, you get the feeling that Hunter has arrived at these conclusions on his own (which I can't imagine he would ever feel the need to claim).

Let me end by saying what I know only in part. Writing a book is hard work. Writing a good book is like running and winning an Ironman race, which, last I checked, is a thoroughgoingly wearying endeavor. Writing a great book is like winning that Ironman, then immediately appearing on Jeopardy and winning that too. It's doable, but pretty difficult. I know this mainly by watching friends write good books. Hunter's book is a good book. He has written a book that I will revisit repeatedly, as I have Andy's book and Niebuhr's too.

If you have the wherewithal, read To Change the World with a small group of friends. It's ripe for long discussions late into the night, and should be accompanied by only the best adult beverages. Hunter's vision of a New City Commons is beautiful and, by the end of his last chapter, welled up in me an ache to see it come into being. I hope I can do my part to serve the art sector of this vision of common flourishing. I'll certainly give it a try. The arts are well worth lovingly stewarding under Christ's tutelage, and the artists who make all this art, the good and the bad and even, pray God, the great, deserve our best prayers and our most generous patronage as they too seek to discern what faithful presence looks like in their respective spheres of life.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Wood-Walk, Biking Particulars, Family Dance, Child Lessons

Smile, Serious, Smile.
Today Phaedra and I went for a walk in the Duke forest with mom and dad. For two hours we wound our way up and down leaf-carpeted paths, while a monochrome grey sky above us kept quiet except for an occasional drizzle. It was so lovely. I'm thankful that Phaedra and I share a love for these kinds of outings. They do my soul good. I'm thankful also for my parents and for the rest of my family back home in Austin.

I've included three videos here. One I posted recently on Facebook. As I titled it there: "Art + Athletics = a beautiful homage to the particular." One of the things this short video does especially well is to take its time. While the scenes are gripping, at times on-the-edge-of-your-seat astonishing, the filming is never in a rush to get done. I think this is one of the qualities that separates good art from mediocre art. Mediocre art always seems to feel the need to rush to the point. It leaves nothing in question and, if you will, seems embarrassed about any leisurely, meandering spaces, the kind that appear to bear no direct import on the "point" of the art but of course in the end make the point all the more richly--and rich.

Kazuo Ishiguro's novel The Remains of the Day takes its time. Orlando Gibbons' choral music takes its royal time as does Terrence Malick's THE THIN RED LINE. Danny MacAskill's bike-trick homage to Scotland takes its time by not feeling the need to fill every second of screen time with the bicycle. The camera work lingers here and there on the landscape or urban features or small things like Danny racking his bike and as such evokes a sense of awe that Danny's cycling prowess alone could not generate. Unfortunately so much of art made by Christians is burdened by the need to "make the most of time" rather than letting time, artistically speaking, find its inner telos. But if the Bible teaches us anything, it is that God positively delights to take his time.

The two other videos made me smile, then laugh out loud. The first is a response by a mother and her four kids to Blaine Hogan's Happy Friday Dance Party #1. (I've included it below for comparison.) When Phaedra and I have kids, we're going to dance like this, innocently and with abandon. Phaedra is a fantastic dancer, so I'll have no worries about our familial vocation.

The second video is produced by one of the daughters, Zoe. I just happened to stumble on it as I watched their family rendition of Flo Rida's "The Club Can't Handle Me." I thought her biblical lesson was spot on: leave the path, you die.

Hanging on the picnic bench.

Walking and Talking.

Magical Mushroom.
Behold the heavens.
I'm lookin' atchoo.

Hey, what's down there?

A little chat with Christine back home.
I love Phaedra.
Read with caution. Duck when deer ducks.

Mother and Son in the distance.

The Club Can't Even Handle the Stewards Right Now from Mandy Steward on Vimeo.

Happy Friday Dance Party #1 from blaine hogan on Vimeo.

Zoe - Trust in the Lord Part 2 from Mandy Steward on Vimeo.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Landscape of Church & Art Questions: Part 1: the prologue

As I've traveled around the country the past few years, visiting churches, talking with pastors and artists, I've begun to observe patterns. During a recent trip to Chicago I had a chance to explore these patterns with a group of young church planters. I'd like to unpack these patterns over the course of four blog entries. This entry will function as an introduction of sorts. For the record, please don't read this as either a comprehensive or definitive statement on the "state of the nation" of art and the church. It is however an attempt to make sense of things.

If you will, the pattern of questions falls along three lines. One set of questions concerns the place of art in corporate worship. One set concerns the caretaking of artist. A third set concerns the role of art in the mission of the church. And this last set can split into two parts: the mission of any given church or the mission of any given Christian out in the marketplace.

The pattern I've observed by no means represents an exhaustive set of concerns for the church, if by this we mean the church in its broadest and most diffuse form. Educational institutions, such as Calvin College's Festival of Faith and Writing or Fuller Seminary's Brehm Center for Worship, Theology and the Arts, play a significant role, as do St. Andrews' ITIA program and Wesley Seminary. Para-church organizations like OM Arts Link or the International Arts Movement play their role, sometimes irrespective of the church's role. Professional societies or groups play an important part too. This might include CIVA or AD Players (Houston).

Then you have publishing houses, journals/magazines, initiatives, networks, retreat centers and fellowships, which each in their way seek to work out their artistic salvation with fear and trembling. Baker Academic's "Engaging Culture" series, Image Journal, the Q conferences, the Wedgwood Circle, the Laity Lodge art-related retreat, and either Art House America or The Chrysostom Society represent examples of each of the previously mentioned categories respectively. Of course you have the so-called Christian music industry. You have "Christian" film festivals. You have Act One. You have The Round. You have what individual folks do in their garages, basements and closets, also known as their studios. You have the internet.

You have a ton of stuff happening around the world.

Before I close this entry out, let me mention a few things that play a critical role in any observation about art and the church. Five things strike me as particularly noteworthy: theological ideas, communication issues, strategies, networks of power and relationship, and legal and financial resources.

With the question of theology, the question "Do the arts matter?" usually falls into two kinds of answers: They matter maximally or they matter minimally. Rarely will a church say that the arts matter not a whit and exclude all forms of art. Usually they will find a place for oratory; they might advocate a minimalist aesthetic palette, but it will still be an aesthetic. With the "minimalists" two attitudes will prevail. Either art will be seen as something to be tolerated or the arts will be viewed positively but under very restrictive terms. With the "maximalists" the desire will be to encourage a flourishing of the arts in certain contexts or media (as the communications media has functioned for populist Christianity; or as classical music has succeeded at Wheaton College). Or the desire will be for the arts to flourish in all arenas of life. Catholics and Dutch Reformed might be seen as representative of this view; might, but not necessarily.

With the matter of mass communication, the thing to pay attention to is the kinds of rhetoric and argumentation that people use on behalf of or against art. Examples might include "art helps us communicate the gospel," "art touches the Father heart of God," "art expresses my vision of the world," "art fulfills our cultural mandate," or "art brings us into the domain of the sublime." Another issue to pay attention to is the channels of communication that are employed. Are convictions about the arts communicated from the pulpit, from radio stations, web sources, print sources, to sectarian audiences or mass audiences--or a combination of these? Lots of channels + diffused at every level of society =  large formative power. Just think Keith Rupert Murdoch and Time Warner Company and you'll get a sense of my meaning. (By comparison Strang, TBN and CBN are bantamweights.)

Strategically we get into divergent views of how we should go about promoting the arts. Send our high school kids to art school? Start an "arts ministry" or "arts school" at your church? Hire professional musicians to lead your corporate worship? Establish alternative sub-cultural organizations (e.g. magazines, film festivals, TV shows, etc)? Reconfigure seminary curricula to include exposure to art for future pastors? Present your work in terms that include no reference to Christian faith? The list goes on. You get some of your fiercest fights here.

With networks of power and relationship I would include groups such as Walden Media and Yale's Institute of Sacred Music, even if technically one is a business and the other is an institution. But like CICW they wield a web of influence through kindred relationships that extends far beyond the boundaries of their concrete group. (These, I believe, are the kinds of things that James D. Hunter suggests in his book To Change the World. I've yet to read it, though, so we'll see.) Stoneworks is such a network. They do great work, but I'm afraid at the moment that their influencing power is very small. I'd say the same about ECVA (Episcopal Church & Visual Arts) and CITA. The Gospel Coalition has a lot of influencing power. I'd say Willow Creek during the 1990s possessed sizable power to influence what churches thought about art, but less so today. Groups like Emergent Village are hard to gauge. The writers who hover within the Glen Workshop sphere pull considerable sway over young writers and poets. Networks are powerful. Network of networks are even more powerful.

Legal and financial resources? Ah, yes, here's the rub. If I may say this in a neutral sense, the Jewish community in America possesses an enormous amount of legal and resources and their influence in the art world is evident. By and large Protestants, especially conservative Protestants, don't really believe the arts across the board matter.  The amount of energy and money they devote to the business of art-making proves it. Belhaven University's (hat trick plus one) School of the Arts is an exception in the educational sphere. Calvin College's twin festivals of music and writing pull off a tour de force in the exposure-to-art department. The SAICFF doles out a whopping $101,000 for best film prize, bigger money than any film festival in the world. (Who hands out #2 biggest prize? You guessed it. Another XN film fest.) But their "ten commandments" of a good Christian film nearly guarantees that their influence on American culture will be miniscule.

All these efforts are fine. But they're ad hoc and isolated. Mostly they're parochial, even in the best sense of the term. Think about it. Can you name 50 great books on art and Christian faith? How about 25? You could probably pull that off with preaching or evangelism, or even "spiritual theology." But at the moment we're working with a pittance of books that set out to make sense of the arts from a distinctly Christian perspective. More need to be written. More thank God will be written. Some will be truly great.

What we need, in the end (the telos, if you will), is something far more systemic and systematic than we've yet imagined (possible or needful). If I can indulge in a quote from the introduction to my book, I believe what we need is "a theology capable of sustaining a long-lasting, fruit-bearing tradition of artmaking by the church, for the church, for the glory of God in the church, and the good of the world." We don't need only good theology. We need institutions, networks, philanthropic foundations, schools, churches, entrepreneurs, visionaries, regular folk and grit. We need loads of grit.

We need in short an ecology friendly to the arts, one where the inertia for art is as normal, desirable and self-sustaining or self-perpetuating as flora is to the Amazon jungles or as art and entertainment are to the American Jewish community.We need a culture in the church where when someone asks "Do the arts matter?", the answer is a puzzled "Why of course they do. They're, well, everywhere. They're just another thing that happens around here, and some of it is quite good."

This is a daunting task and the temptation is to give up or, worse, to settle. I hope we do neither. In fact I believe we can hope for something much better. Mainly I believe this because I believe in the Triune God and in Christ's constant love for his church.

But enough typing. I need to go home and have dinner with Phaedra Jean the wonderful art machine, among other wonders she exhibits.

In the next three entries under this heading I'll be suggesting a few ways that the arts can flourish in our corporate worship (as diverse as they may be), in the lives of artists, and in the mission of the church wherever she may find herself.

God help me, this entry was supposed to be brief. And I've completely forgotten to mention Duke Divinity's own arts efforts, for which I am very grateful.

Anyhoo, if you forget everything I have written here, just remember: God loves raptors too.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Tales of the Absentee Tooth Fairy

This is so good I asked my sister if I could share it on my blog. She said yes. I nearly cried it cracked me up so much. It's the story of how the tooth fairy failed to show up at the Warner house and how all the kids reacted. The kids are Brendan (12), Cormac (10), Skye (7) Bronwyn (5).

This morning
So, Cormac has a molar, worth $2. He's put it under his pillow 4 nights in a row; told Cliff, but didn't tell me and the male version of that fairy forgot. Cormac wakes up this morning and gives me a most longsuffering look, "Mom, the tooth fairy still didn't come last night."

So since it was foggy this morning, I said, "Cormac look out the peephole and see if it is foggy in the front yard." "I can't see, mom." "Why, open the door and check." Wouldn't you know it there was a piece of paper stuck to the door covering the peephole which said, "Dear Cormac, I ran out of cash last night. I'll be back tonight for your tooth. The Tooth Fairy." Rolling of the eyes. Male tooth fairy can't stop laughing in the kitchen and female tooth fairy is feeling brilliant.

Skye says, "I don't believe in tooth fairies," oh so grown up like. Makes me sad.

Bronwyn says, "Wow, the tooth fairy was here at OUR house. She has pretty handwriting, mommy. I wish I had teeth to leave under my pillow. I love the tooth fairy," with wonder and joy in her eyes. Melt me. Our last little believer.

Cormac: "I'm hoping the tooth fairy has cash tonight."

Bronwyn: "Mommy, do you think you could leave a note for the tooth fairy and ask her if she has any extra money because I really want some money. I need some money" with tears squeezing out.

Skye: in sobs...."I"m only going to give the tooth fairy two of my teeth. I'm saving the other one (we've been keeping them in a ziploc until she's felt brave enough to part with them). But I really don't want to give my teeth up (absolutely falling apart)"

So I enlist Brendan who says to his sister: "Skye you know what? Teeth turn into peanuts and so every time you see people eating peanuts you know that those are all the kids' teeth of the world." She looks at him in horror. I burst into giggles and kick him out of her room.

Skye sobbing: "I don't think $1 is enough for my tooth. I don't think I want to put them under my pillow." "Yes, you can do it darling, just go to sleep quickly and then you'll find all sorts of money under your pillow." And I slip out.

10 minutes later she comes down the stairs sobbing..."Daddy, I can't do it." Cliff encourages her and they come up with a take a picture of the teeth so that she can remember them her entire life. He takes a picture of her trying to give them up. She's trying so hard to smile. Then he takes a picture of the teeth. She quiets down and agrees to go to sleep. Bronwyn is fake whimpering in her bed because the tooth fairy won't take on charity projects like her po' li'l self.

I have 8 quarters in each pocket. A pocketful for each child once sweetly and blissfully asleep. It kills me that the one who truly believes in the one who won't receive anything tonight.


Friday, November 05, 2010

My Sermon Notes, Beauty, Chicago, Derek Webb, Phaedra's art, the Creed in Song and Hauerwas

School at the moment is cooking my goose. But before I jumped on a plane for Chicago (in less than an hour), I wanted to drop a handful of things here.

The audio of my sermon is up online (hear here). The rector at my church All Saints Anglican, Father Steve Breedlove, kindly offered me the opportunity to preach. I felt honored as well as the responsibility to prepare well. Let me say two things about the sermon. One, listening to it online is a little like listening to a play through the telephone: it doesn't quite transfer. Not only did the subject deal with a kinetic aspect of Anglican worship, there was a lot of kinetic activity that took place during my sermon. So you'll have to imagine what's happening "on the other end" of the audio line.

Two, there was much that could have been said in this sermon. But with 29 minutes you can only do so much. I'll drop here a part of the sermon that, for me, was key. In this section I explore three theological implications for our bodies in worship.

First implication: God creates us as whole persons. The Scriptures remind us here that we don’t have a body, we are somebody.

Second implication: The gospel claims us as whole persons. The first and greatest commandment, Jesus reminds us, is to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, soul, mind and strength. In Rom. 12:1 St. Paul writes, “I urge you, brethren, in light of God’s mercy to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.” This is something that we get to do in corporate worship: to offer to God our bodies, not just our minds or emotions.

The third implication is this: What the Anglican liturgy does is to train our whole persons in the basic rhythms of the gospel. What I mean is this. In the liturgy we do not simply declare the gospel, we perform the gospel. In the liturgy we do not simply recall, we re-member with our whole selves the whole of Christ’s life. We dramatically anticipate today our destiny at the end of the age, when Christ will have consummated all things. One of the things that I love about the Anglican liturgy is that in it we get to rehearse, week after week, year after year, the narrative of Christ’s life: his coming and his sending, his prayers and his peace, his speaking his Word to us and his giving his Life for us, his ascetic simplicity and his festal abundance. We rehearse this narrative weekly because, among other reasons, we live in an entropically fallen world where humans forget the gospel and break down on a regular basis. So we need to re-train ourselves in this narrative—and it remains alive and fresh and new every week because the Holy Spirit makes it alive and fresh and new to us every time we gather in Jesus’ name.

In the liturgy, dear friends, we aren’t left as spectators to the divine drama. We get to be participants. We get to be participants who play themselves into the role of Christ’s life. [Cf. Richard Hooker.]"

Some very exciting things are happening on the art front for Phaedra. See here for info on her new studio. See here to view new work, new exhibits and new opportunities for purchasing artwork.

Tonight and tomorrow morning I'll be meeting with a group of church planters in Chicago. I'm excited for the opportunity to explore with them ways in which the arts can serve the worship, community and mission of their churches.  Three things I look forward to. I can't wait to eat deep dish pizza. I can't wait to see again the architecture that surrounds Batman every time he flies through Gotham City. And of course I can't wait to see what the Spirit will open up for us in our conversations.

I had a chance to chat with Derek back at Crowder's worship conference a month back. What a great guy. He sent me an early preview of his new album, "Feedback," and I quite like it. With this album he explores "a classically composed, instrumental, electronic record based strictly on the 'Lord's Prayer'." Here are two videos of note: one which introduces the album and another which introduces us to the artist (Scott Erickson) who created work to accompany the album.

Feedback [2.1] from Scott Brignac on Vimeo.

The Making of the "Feedback" Paintings from scott erickson on Vimeo.

Here is a review of my book, For the Beauty of the Church, by The Christian Century. I was grateful that they wanted to review it and I found the review engagingly curious.

Check out this great new album that my friend Bruce Benedict pulled together. Very nice. Well done, musicians (and Brian Moss, my man).

I really like how Stanley Hauerwas puts it here:

“Imagination is morally required because we refuse to allow the ‘necessities’ of the world, which are often but stale habits, to go unchanged or unchallenged when they are in fact susceptible to the power of imagination” (In “On Keeping Theological Ethics Imaginative,” 55).