Thursday, February 24, 2011

Things I'm working on these days

Since I get asked this question frequently enough, I thought I'd go ahead and mention a few of the things that I've been working on recently.

Worship, the Arts and Moral Formation
Two questions interest me about the kind of art that occurs in corporate worship.

1) How does such art not simply complement other functions of corporate worship--like illustrating sermons or decorating spaces--but enable a congregation to do something it could not otherwise do? That is, do the liturgical arts (for want of a pithier term) bring new things to the worship experience, without which the congregation might miss out on an essential opportunity for moral formation?

2) My second question assumes a positive answer to the first. What would be the conditions for a "successful" morally formative experience of art in corporate worship? Provisionally I find myself arguing that the liturgical arts serve not only to deepen our physical, affective and imaginative participation in corporate worship, they also serve to form virtue in us in their own way. That last phrase is key. Any kind argument I might develop further depends on a careful understanding of it.

John Calvin and Musical Instruments
If scholars make note of Calvin’s ideas about musical instruments, it is usually to observe the fact that he located them under the era of “figures and shadows.” Often, strangely enough, nothing will be said at all. In the case of Charles Garside’s exceptional essay, “The Origins of Calvin’s Theology of Music: 1536-1543,” the focus remains on music as a general topic. Peter Auksi rightly, I believe, identifies “simplicity” as a dominant aesthetic in Calvin’s liturgical ideas, but says little more, though that more is sharply incisive.

Jeremy Begbie presses Calvin in his underestimation of music’s particular capacities, while Herman Selderhuis delivers a fine review of Calvin’s view of instruments in the context of the Psalter. Paul Jones does more than most, but even here his exposition remains incomplete. The research I undertook recently intended to press the matter further.

Why exactly does Calvin situate instruments in the “dispensation of shadows and figures”? What grounds does he propose for this conclusion? What kinds of arguments does he make and does he remain consistent throughout?

On the encouragement of the professor who supervised my research, I will be seeking to publish my findings in an academic journal. I confess: it was a thrilling research experience.

Karl Barth on divine and human agency
One of the questions that continuingly vexes not only theologians but regular folk too, including artists, is, What does it mean to talk about human beings having a space "to be themselves"? The fear, and it is a very real one, is that we are merely pawns of the fates or puppets of an absolutely deterministic deity.

Christianly considered, is there a way that we can say that the human creature obtains a “space to be itself” (whatever that means),  while still maintaining God’s full sovereignty over creaturely life (whatever that means)? My particular interest in this question relates to role that the Holy Spirit plays in the dynamic of double agency. Recently my friend Tanner Capps and I jumped into the hornet's nest and worked on this material in an independent study with Jeremy. Our focus was Barth's Church Dogmatics, in particular III.3 and IV.2.

A key passage in Barth, among many, would be this one:

"The Ruler of world history is also the Creator who has given this particularity to the various creatures and creaturely groupings....  [God] is far too free not to be able to accept and joyfully to affirm [the human creature] in its particularity…. [Against all degenerative movement towards homogeneity, the work of God] has nothing whatever to do with a leveling down and flattening out of individuals and individual groupings…. To each of them He gives its own glory, its lasting worth, its definite value."

Not easy material, granted, but certainly worth devoting careful attention to, and it holds promise (or peril, depending on whom you ask) for the ways that we think about the artist's vocation.

Theological Aesthetics in the Catholic Tradition
Each spring Jeremy Begbie leads an independent study with his doctoral students. At the moment there are five of us. This spring our lusty group is working through a series of key Roman Catholic texts on theological aesthetics. Our goal is to investigate the way that they have influenced recent Catholic and Protestant writing on theology and the arts.

Some of our texts include Aquinas' Summa; Hans Urs von Balthasar's The Glory of the Lord; Theological Aesthetics after Von Balthasar, edited by Oleg V. Bychkov and James Fodor; Jacques Maritain's "Art and Scholasticism" and "Responsibility of the Artist"; Richard Viladesau's Theological Aesthetics: God in Imagination, Beauty and Art; and Pope John Paul II "Letter to Artists (1999). We've also just read Keith Johnson's fabulously lucid Karl Barth and the Analogia Entis.

It's a tantalizing list of texts, but we'll need to bring our A game if we want to understand the not-for-the-faint-of-heart material well.

The Gospel of John, Holy Spirit and Materiality
It is no secret that John 4:23-24 has functioned in the church's history as a kind of master text for thinking about worship. Christians have appealed to it repeatedly to argue, on the one hand, for an intensely immaterial worship (i.e. "invisible" and "internal") and, on the other, for an intensely material worship (i.e. "sensible" and "external"). In the late 2nd century Clement of Alexandria, like many before and after him, wrestled with the strange world of John. Its strangeness, he felt, lay precisely in comparison to the Synoptic narratives. In the end Clement concluded the following:

“Last of all, aware that the physical facts [ta somatika] had been recorded in the Gospels, encouraged by his pupils and irresistibly moved by the Spirit, John wrote a spiritual Gospel.”

While Matthew, Mark and Luke wrote about the “outward facts,” Clement explains, John wrote about ta pneumatika, that is, about "spiritual matters." Whatever Clement had in mind with these phrases, a larger concern of mine in my current study of John is to discover how "Spirit" language in John operates in the narrative and in particular in relation worship, history, materiality, ideas about God and the “gospel.”

It will be obvious if you've read this blog for any length of time that I'm intensely curious about how, say, Pentecostals and Presbyterians, or high church and low church folk, build arguments for the inclusion or exclusion of the arts in corporate worship. If you observe long enough you begin to observe how, in a twist of John language, the Spirit is tossed about this way and that in people's declarations about pneumatology.

I think there is something far more interesting going on the Gospel of John than the cursory (and, I think, careless) statements that too often get made about the Spirit in relationship to worship. The main problem, I might suggest, is that folks too often read phrasings about the Spirit in John in isolated, atomized ways--instead of in light of the whole narrative. We have to allow, at least initially, the whole narrative to disclose meaning about the Spirit, rather than our preconceived notions about what the Spirit can and cannot or does and does not do.

There is plenty of work ahead and it's quite fun to have on my hand a hypothesis whose outcome I cannot predict in advance. As always: something begets something. So we'll keep reading both broadly and deeply and see what we find. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to study these different ideas at length.

(First image at top of the page is of one of our Compline services at Hope Chapel. Kate Van Dyke's banners of St. Michael and St. Gabriel hang in the background. How I miss those services.)

And now for something different.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Taylor Labors

I have a blog entry I will eventually write titled "My Life Didn't Turn Out Like I Thought It Would." But for now I am happy to share the good news that Phaedra and I are going to have a baby. God-willing the baby will arrive smack dab on a federal holiday: Labor Day.

As a gift to celebrate this announcement our dear friend Samantha Wedelich drew an image of us and for us. We've been big fans of her work for quite a well (do check out her work). But we loved the oven mitts, the red hair, Phaedra's characteristic skirt-over-pants look and the sweet image of togetherness that Samantha's line-drawing implies. May it ever be.

We don't always understand the ways and will of God, but we are grateful for the community of family and friends that surrounds us. We wouldn't want to do it any other way.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Update on Retreat for Ministers to Artists

I am pleased to announced that the marvelously talented Brooke Waggoner will be joining us as our guest musician at the upcoming retreat for ministers to artists. Phaedra and I first heard of Brooke at Charlie Peacock's house. Charlie had recently produced her Go Easy Little Doves concert DVD and both he and Andi spoke highly of her, as artist, as a person, as a believer. He gave us a copy of her CD and we instantly fell in love with her work.

If I have my facts right, she closed out the 2008 SXSW festival and returned again in 2009. (Here's a nice interview with Relevant, fyi.) A Louisiana native, Brooke started playing piano at the age of 4, wrote original pieces at 10, and grew up immersed in the classical music world. After graduating Louisiana State University in 2006, Brooke moved to Nashville to pursue a music career, where she plays what I'd call, well, epic-folk-atmospheric-classically-informed-energetically-soulful-poignant music.

So that, in short, completes a provisional trifecta for our retreat: Frederica Mathewes-Green, Brooke Waggoner and myself. Plus a whole bunch of really amazing folks that I know are already coming. (See here for my note about the lovely Frederica.) And I have a few other possible treats of my sleeve (or at least they're up the redoubtable Steven Purcell's sleeve).

See preview of Brooke's music below.

Very simply: folks who feel any kind of call to shepherd artists. If you love caring for artists, this retreat is for you. If you find yourself lying awake in the middle of the night conceiving of residency programs that contribute to the spiritual and artistic formation of artists, the retreat's for you. If you think discipleship of artists is a holistic business, you'll have come to the right retreat. If you mentor fledgling artists, come. If you seek alternative models for fostering the calling of artists, you should consider coming.

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.

It'll take place again at the beautiful Laity Lodge in the hill country of central Texas. Here is the info about the retreat this past spring on Laity Lodge's website. Registration is officially open.

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 the 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'

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Bits & Bobs on a pleasant Wednesday evening in Durham, North Carolina

Here are a fifteen things that have caught my attention over the past few weeks.

1. Lausanne "Cape Town Commitment" to the arts.
For a statement that ostensibly represents the thoughts of thousands and millions of evangelicals worldwide, I found the following text intriguing and encouraging.

"We long to see the Church in all cultures energetically engaging the arts as a context for mission by:

1) Bringing the arts back into the life of the faith community as a valid and valuable component of our call to discipleship;

2) Supporting those with artistic gifts, especially sisters and brothers in Christ, so that they may flourish in their work;

3) Letting the arts serve as an hospitable environment in which we can acknowledge and come to know the neighbour and the stranger;

4) Respecting cultural differences and celebrating indigenous artistic expression."

For the rest of the text, see here and scroll down to "Bearing witness to the truth."

2. Transpositions goes crafty. 
I deeply appreciated the commitment of our good friends at St. Andy's to devote an entire week to the craft arts. Well worth your read if you care about cooking, quilting, homemaking or any of the other "domestic arts."

3. The galactic power of Lady Gaga to change the world through one song.
I think it'd be very fascinating to run a study group or outing at your favorite adult beverage establishment exegeting the text of Lady Gaga's latest song. Obviously she'd need to be taken in the multiple contexts in which this song situates itself. But still, there's some fascinating philosophical, theological, ethical, cultural and artistic stuff rummaging around in this song.

4. And then add two cups of beauty.
From the doable to the more difficult, here are two authors who engage ideas about beauty in ways that deserve careful attention.

Uno: Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubinstein, L'OrĂ©al, and the Blemished History of Looking Good, by Ruth Brandon (2011).

Dos: "The Great Theory of Beauty and its Decline," written by Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz in 1972.

5. Two people who believe that when you eat well, you might just be practicing resurrection.
Behold the people for whom *Culture Is Not Optional.

6. If you missed the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship symposium...
... have no fear, our good man Bruce Benedict offers a glimpse into his experience. I'm so sorry I missed the event, but I've been encouraged by the different reports I've heard so far. My worship pastor attended, so maybe I'll get some tasty high-low-east-west-old-new-lobal-glocal worship at my own church this Sunday.

7. This looks so good...
... I might be in danger of committing the sin of jealousy. Because I know a little about the people behind the latest issue of Comment magazine, I feel free instead to rejoice that it was done in the first place. There's a good chance I'll read it cover to cover as soon as I get my hands on it.  By "it" I mean "Letters to the Young," guest edited by James K. A. Smith, aka Jamie the Pentecostal-Reformed-Radical Orthodox caped crusader for all things desirable. Kudos to Alissa W. et al.

8. Curious and curiouser.
Worth a sober read. As someone who once ran a film festival and has written a few pieces on movies and the world of movies, I always found myself at a loss to know what to do with the folks over at MovieGuide. Things are usually more complicated than one blog entry can encompass, but I trust Jeff and my sympathies would initially lie with his interpretation of things.

9. Two conferences of good repute.
Like a man of good reputation, conferences sometimes acquire good reputations, and both Jubilee and IAM's Encounter fall into that category (fall upwards, if you will). If you don't have anything going on Feb. 18-20 or Mar. 3-5, you probably won't regret the pennies paid to visit either of these conferences. I'm just sorry that I can't make it. And yet, lo, I quote myself.

10. I will, however, be at this conference:
Union University's Art, Culture, Theology conference taking place on April 8-9. The focus of the conference will be the visual arts. Finally I'll get to shake hands with Dan Siedell after having reviewed his work (in a forthcoming issue of Books & Culture) and having discussed his book in mildly shady circles of smartypants roaming the halls of Duke Divinity. Other good people that will share the stage include Michael Card, Nigel Goodwin, Mary McCleary (who I think is the bees knees), Michael Winters, Wayne Adams and a guy whose name almost looks like Noel Paul Stookey.

11. I really, really like this.
I say liturgical artist Erling Hope gets a gold star for this project which found a way to include regular folk in the process of making really beautiful work (which I've included at the top).

12. Downright distressing.
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who penned the recent award-winning film "The Social Network," said something that on the face of it sounds profound, but then crushes up against incoherency. And I quote a quote in an article by Mark Harris in the New York Magazine: "I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling. What is the big deal about accuracy purely for accuracy’s sake, and can we not have the true be the enemy of the good?" What the what? Anyhow, it's a long article, but worth, yes you guessed it, a careful, patient, disciplined read.

13. Cam the Man.
Here's a fine interview with a very good man, Cameron Anderson, current director of Christians In the Visual Arts. I have to say, I love what Stoneworks is on about.

14. The Skinny on Doublethink.
That's all I'll say for now about all the stuff that's being written about MTV's show, "Skins." Strange times we're a-livin' in.

15. And in order not to end this peripatetic entry on a grim note, how about this as an example of the wacky and wild.
Seriously. It's just a little much. But in its own way I guess it's also perfectly expected too. Envious? No. I've been known to do a mean handstand in my day. I could take 'em.