Friday, April 29, 2011

Last Retreat Update: 5 Minutes Max

A month from today I'll be living large in the Frio River Canyon. Our retreat for ministers to artists, occurring May 26-29, will be under way and frequent dips into the river will be a mainstay of our life together under the warm Texas sun. I can't wait. For info see here (on Frederica) and here (on Brooke Waggoner) and here (on the vocation of the artist) and here (on the virtuous artist, which will be the theme of my talk), and see here to register.

As I anticipate our time together I wanted to mention something new that we'll be doing. In addition to the talks that Frederica Mathewes-Green and I will be giving, I want to make space in our official program for an information-dump of sorts.

I'm calling it 5 Minutes Max.

For those of us who find ourselves in the business of shepherding artists, developing arts ministries, coordinating on-campus and off-campus art events for our churches, functioning as liaisons with the arts councils of our cities or serving as college chaplains or art teachers or cross-cultural missionaries, the one thing we ache for is wisdom. We want to do our work well and for that to happen we know that we need both information and knowledge which might somehow translate into wise living.

With a room full of people working in a similar field, it seems a crime not to share what we've learned along the way. To facilitate this possibility, I'm going to invite those attending to prepare a five minute reflection on something they've learned, positively or negatively, whether in success or in failure, alone or with others, over the past year.

If already know that you're attending the retreat, I welcome you to begin thinking of what you might share. We'll figure out the details at the retreat, but for now think of one thing that you'd like to share that pertains either a) to your pastoral work or b) to your practical work. The first category would cover such things as pastoral care, discipleship, counseling or leadership. The second category would cover any activities or programs that you've supervised.

The key will be to pick one thing only. The temptation, naturally, will be to want to share everything. But because we'll only be working with 5 Minutes Max, prayerfully consider what one thing you might want to communicate to the group and trust that over the course of the retreat you'll have ample opportunity to explore a whole range of ideas and discoveries together.

Ok. That's it. I'm proctoring an exam at the moment. Duke Divinity students, all of whom are graduating this year, are scribbling brilliant answers in their blue books, I don't doubt. Myself, I need to get crackalackin' on my paper for Jeremy: "Spirit and Beauty in Catholic Theological Aesthetics." Good times.

Good times indeed.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Taylor Labors Disclosed

We went to the friendly people at UNC medical the day after my birthday, April 17. This is what the ultrasound screen revealed to us. Three words: we're supersonically thrilled. Taylor labors continue joyfully forward.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

5 thoughts on pastoring artists

I've copied here the contents of a handout of a presentation I gave today to the seminary students at Duke Divinity. I commented on each point as I moved down the list. I also took questions to clarify things. As per usual, things are more complicated than a simple handout can convey. But, still, it's a decent summary of tendencies I've observed over the years.

The images scattered below, excepting the shepherd pic, are from work that Phaedra made for a wedding recently, including wreaths made out of book pages.

“Five Thoughts on the Pastoring of Artists”

1. “Isn’t it obvious what it means to be an artist? Aren’t you either a dancer, actor, musician, painter, architect, writer, poet or filmmaker?” No, it isn’t obvious. The kinds of artists and the different interests that they investigate in the fields of art are as varied as the members of the Body of Christ. Point for pastors: Pay attention to the details of an artist’s life. And be careful not to assume that the categories which either the art establishment or church present are the only ways to be an artist.

2. “What do you mean you want to be a painter? I thought you were a dancer?” Artists figure themselves out differently in different seasons of life. They don’t stay static. Point for pastors: pay attention to the station and season of life in which an artist finds him or herself and be careful not to narrowly pre-define an artist’s life. Keep listening to the Spirit along with your artists. (EX: Rick Van Dyke.)

3. “Why do we need arts pastors? Why not engineering pastors? Or business pastors?” Good question. One possible answer, among many and not all equally persuasive, relates to the way in which art is implicated in every dimension of human life and then equally much shapes every dimension of human life, influencing people for better or worse. This dimension of human life requires shrewd, humble shepherding. Point for pastors: you’ll want to commit to regularly communicating a careful understanding of the aesthetic dimension of your community’s life. (NB: David Ley's tour of the history of ideas in the architecture of Vancouver. NB: in principle we don't need arts pastors on a church staff. Much better is an aesthetically informed pastoral staff all across the board.)

4. “Why are artists so special?” This is another way of asking, “Why are artists so moody and volatile and needy?” Because a) at some level, unique among human occupations (though not exclusively), artists are working intimately with the data--as well as the forces--of matter, affectivity, imagination and with the ways that these shape individual and communal self-understanding, and b) the requirement to remain intimately connected to the wildness of matter, affectivity and imagination causes artists to have to remain vulnerable--vulnerably open, vulnerably attentive--to these forces, i.e. moody, volatile and often needy. Point for pastors: the good pastoring of artists is not that different from good parenting. (See Barbara Nicolosi's chapter in my book.)

5. “What does it mean to pastor the artist as a person?” This is another way of asking, How do we shepherd their identity in terms, for example, of their nature and ambition? Point for pastors: help clarify for artists a vision for their life, an intention to stay steadfast in that vision, and a method for sustaining that vision in health, i.e., open to the Spirit so that artists will learn to flourish in whatever season or station of life they might find themselves. (See Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart.)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


If you publish a book,
a parish curate accuses you of heresy,
a college sophomore denounces you,
an illiterate condemns you,
the public derides you,
your publisher renounces you,
and your wine dealer cuts off your credit.
I always add to my prayers, 
“Deliver me, O Lord, from the itch of bookmaking.”

-- Voltaire, Alphabet of Wit

Lately I've felt drugged by the amount of books I've been ingesting. Doctoral work is beastly business some days. A sense of humor goes a long way to keeping one sane.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

9.5 Theses about beauty

The past few months Jeremy, Bo, Brian, Tanner, Jacki and I have been working our way through a series of texts. The texts, which come primarily out of the Catholic tradition though also include representatives in Radical Orthodoxy, have focused our attention to questions surrounding art, aesthetics, beauty and such. Our discussions have been consistently stimulating, and at times rollicking. Laughter is good medicine for conversation around difficult ideas. Coffee is never far from hand. Pumpkin bread, apples, power bars, fresh orange juice, good tea and chocolate have kept us company throughout. I cannot remember when I've had more satisfying discussions than these, and, yes, I feel very lucky.

The territory
The whiteboard in our study room has been marked by diagrams, sketches, categorizations, arrows, circles and any other geometric shape that might help us to keep the lines of thought clearly apprehended. While exhausting on some days it has never been boring (could it ever be?), and we are all aware, increasingly so, of the very demanding territory that this discussion entails. As I mentioned a while back, our readings have come from the works of von Balthasar, Aquinas, Maritain, Viladesau, Theological Aesthetics after Von Balthasar, Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, John Milbank, Graham Ward, Keith Johnson, Edith Wyschogrod, The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar, bits from The Beauty of God, and I've rummaged around Etienne Gilson and Flannery O'Connor as well as David Bentley Hart, Wolterstorff, Sherry, Seerveld, Chaplin and Frank Burch Brown.

The texts have not only provoked our minds, chiefly for good, they have also at times confounded our minds with the most elaborate non-sequiturs and distressing lines of logic. My provisional conclusion is this: the centuries-long discussion about art and beauty, specifically about art's relationship to beauty, is a dizzying one.

So to keep a few things clear, I have begun to write out a series of theses. The danger of a thesis, of course, is that its distilling character masks "a tissue of circumstances" (to quote Maritain) and a tangle of arguments behind them. They're intended to be simple, but in actual fact they're anything but.

Still, I thought I'd share a few things that I've learned along the way. What I've learned principally is to slow down--to read things three and four times if necessary, to look and to look again, to understand the author carefully before I make judgments (a basic requirement of charity), and to not be afraid, as hard as it is, to keep asking simple questions, however "obvious" or "silly" they may seem, and when I feel overwhelmed, to not panic but to recognize that these authors deserve the respect of careful, slow, patient study.

A fun assignment
My assignment to you, dear reader, then, is a fun one: Next time you hear someone speak, teach or preach about beauty, ask yourself: 1) Have they defined what they mean by beauty? 2) Have they told you the specific context(s) in which their treatment of beauty is meant to make sense?  3) Have they explained to you the goods that they believe beauty will yield as well as the ills that beauty might protect us against.

If they haven't done this, then chances are that they are not yet clear about beauty themselves, and therefore have unfortunately not helped you do your work better. That's a sharp statement, I admit. But it is also one that qualifies all previous statements I've ever made about beauty, which unfortunately have been burdened with a considerable measure of unclarity. (This includes the nervous relationship I hold to the title of my book.)

Here then are 9.5 theses in no particular order and by no means comprehensive. And a good cheer for not giving up on beauty altogether, because the world would be much poorer without it, theologically as well as actually.

9.5 Theses about beauty

1. Every discussion about beauty is necessarily a contextual discussion. There is no purely objective or abstract or general way to talk about it. The kinds of contexts, or traditions, that come into considerable play include:

a. The metaphysical tradition, whether in Orthodox or Catholic circles
b. The Continental philosophical tradition (Kant, Hegel, et al)
c. The Dutch Calvinist tradition
d. The contemporary ("high") art tradition
e. The popular art tradition

2. Because a human person is a complex being, he or she can be simultaneously beautiful in one faculty (say, the intellectual) but ugly in another (say, in his or her relational or speech habits). That’s how physically unremarkable saints can be described as uncommonly beautiful or how Hollywood actors can be gorgeous but morally debauched. Here I am using beauty in one of its “classical” senses, as harmoniously unified, richly complex and attractively splendid. This also, by the way, brings to light the kind of complicated issues that come up in an aesthetically excellent but morally repugnant work of art.

3. While beauty began as a conceptual sub-category (e.g. to mathematics: Pythagoreans; political theory: Plato; practical reason: Aristotle; rhetoric: Horace), it eventually became a supra-category (with comprehensive, all-encompassing powers of explanation), and then receded to become a sub-category or even sub-par-category (for 20th/21st century contemporary artists and critics).

4. If you ever stand up in public to speak about beauty, you should do three things:

a. Define what you mean by beauty.
b. Define the context you have in mind.
c. Define why exactly you think it's important.

5. Because beauty in the contemporary world is often regarded as equivalent with standards of taste or mere appearance, it is rightly rejected as shallow, as “mere form,” and rightly found to be “a bit of a bore” (Somerset Maugham, Cakes and Ale).

6. Your average Christian assumes that art and beauty self-evidentially go together, much like he or she assumes that God is self-evidentially beautiful. This is a problem, because the meaning of neither of these is self-evident.

7. Your average American believes that beauty putatively designates “feminine” qualities, which is why in common practice we feel more comfortable calling a woman beautiful than a man.

8. When beauty is separated from goodness and truth, it suffers. While it matters how we construe these “transcendentals,” the axiom stands regardless of our construals. The point is a dynamical one, that is, how they are interrelated, not a static one.

9. Five contexts are significant for discussions of beauty, to the extent that each in its own way normatively determines the meaning of the term, and when these contexts are not kept clearly distinguished, discussions of beauty quickly become muddled :

a. God/the divine
b. Creation/nature
c. Art/aesthetics
d. Culture/marketplace
e. Piety/church

9.5 Discussions of beauty have been accompanied by a litany of bifurcations. Some of the more common ones include:

a. Art vs. craft
b. "Fine" art vs. the “people’s” art
c. Formal vs. expressive
d. Taste vs. vulgarity
e. Disinterested vs. interested
f. “art of glory” vs. “art of the cross”
g. Aestheticism vs. moralism
h. Invisible vs. visible or Infinite vs. finite

(Here below is something I found quite beautiful from Mothlight Creative. It's a video homage to Pittsburgh comprised solely of still photos. Artwork above represents some of Phaedra's new work. Three hours from now I'm headed here.)

April (For Pittsburgh) from Mothlight Creative on Vimeo.