Friday, July 29, 2011

One Word Commentary

This is my bits and bobs blog entry. I'm going to give a one-phrase commentary to each article or curio I link, which I realize is not the same thing as a one-word commentary per the blog title. Mainly, however, the challenge is to keep it lean.

Here are things that have caught my attention in the world of the arts with respect to everything else.

1. Andrew Garfield: "Spiderman saved my life."

Did he now?

2. The Art of Worship: Paintings, Prayers, and Readings for Meditation (Yale Press: 2011).

Ocularcentricity at work? Maybe.

3. Interview with Vera Farmiga, director of forthcoming movie Higher Ground.

Very curious to see how she renders Carolyn S. Briggs' memoir, This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost. See here and here too.

4. Marcus Mumford's parents work for Vineyard UK.

I didn't see that one coming. But glad to see charismatics generating a fine one. See this too.

5. Video games are not what they used to be.

Dumbfounded after watching the 20 minute "promo" of BioShock Inifinte.

6. The Band that Played On.

A review of Steve Turner's latest book about the musicians aboard the Titanic.

7. Baby Boy Idols.

And I quote: "In this manner, Justin Bieber was unleashed on our world to sing about things he has absolutely no familiarity with" (Christopher Yokel over at the Curator).

8. Violent Video Games and the Cathartic Kid.

That's one way to look at it (which at the very least deserves an honest hearing).

9. "Why not hack our bodies?"

A nice essay by Matthew Lee Anderson with reference to a theology of the body. And this is pretty creepy too (courtesy of Wired Magazine).

10. How to kill email before it kills you.

I'm listening.

11. America's first zero-packaging grocery store.

Where? No less than in the city that's keeping it weird: Austin, Texas.

12. Hilarious (for those of you who have ever found yourself in a foreign country and weren't exactly sure how to say the right word, fearing you might offend with the wrong one).

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Liturgy, Formation, Mission and Art: A Conference

“Liturgy is not play acting, but [rather] the evocation of an alternate reality that comes into play in the very moment of the liturgy.” -- Walter Brueggeman, The Message of the Psalms

I'm very excited to announce a conference taking place in Durham, NC, on November 8-10. While its primary target audience is Anglicans and Episcopalians, the topic of the conference does not, to my mind, exclude others, whether high-church Reformed or traditional Catholic, liturgical-charismatic or Oxford Methodists, or anybody else who might want to join in.

What occasions this conference? 
The first thing that occasions this conference is a concern over the way in which the Anglican liturgy is often (mis)perceived along with the role of the arts in it.

The liturgy, as the case may be, is perceived as stuffy, archaic, formalistic, benumbing, insensitive to the requirements of contextualization and therefore both unintelligible and irrelevant to your average western citizen. It is opposed to spontaneity. It is ritualistic rather than personal. It occludes the gospel rather than illumines it. And if art appears in the liturgy, it is of the safe or stiffly traditional type.

My response to that perception? Yep. You're right. It can be and has been all of those things at some point or another, and possibly worse.

But it needn't be. Form need not be pitted against freedom, nor tradition against innovation. In fact the form of the "classical Christian liturgy," at its very best, is a refreshingly freeing thing. And because it's an organic rather than a mechanical thing, it "lives" and is able to respond supplely to the contingencies of time and space--indeed across time and space.

What about art in the liturgy?  While I may not represent the majority on this point, I believe all the arts can fittingly serve the different actions of the liturgy. I believe this is possible in such a way that our experience of the gospel expands rather than diminishes. I believe that this kind of experience of the arts can intensify and deepen our worship rather than distract or merely titillate our encounter of the triune God in the liturgy.

The second thing that occasions this conference? A confidence that the classical or traditional form of the liturgy and the role which the arts can play in it have much to offer contemporary Christians. It is a confidence that believes the Anglican liturgy is good for us, and good not just for us but also for our neighbors, whether they are of the nominal or irreligious kind.

Joining forces
Quite a number of exciting conversations along these lines are afoot (here, for example) and this conference is simply another effort to add clarity to one part of this conversation and to inspire folks with a hopeful vision of what could be.

I've included here a summary of the conference along with links to Anglican 1000, our primary host, where you can get registered for the event and, eventually, find a longer explanation of the talks, workshops, travel, etc.

Intended Audience: pastors, priests, ministry leaders, church planters, music leaders, liturgists and artists of all types. And students are most welcome to join us too.

Overall Goal: to equip us with an understanding of the formative power of the Anglican liturgy and so to bring to light the possibilities of its doxological, theological, ethical, missional and artistic beauty.

The Four Plenary Talks that frame the conference: 

1. “The Compelling Logic of Anglican Liturgy”: The Rev. Dr. Sam Wells, Dean of Duke Chapel and Research Professor of Christian Ethics, Duke Divinity School

2. “Liturgy as a Counterforce to the Prevailing Cultures”: Mark Galli, Senior Editor, Christianity Today

3. “Liturgy, Music and 'Participation'”: Dr. Lester Ruth, Research Professor of Christian Worship, Duke Divinity School

4. “The Visual Power of the Liturgy”: David Taylor, Candidate for Doctor of Theology, Duke Divinity School (editor of For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts)

Other details
The conference will include three workshop sessions, Q&A following each plenary talk, two meals so that we can share significant time together, lots of white space and, best of all, four worship services--Compline, Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Morning Prayer with Eucharist. Each worship service will be led by a different team and will allow us to practice what we're hearing and saying.

The contestedness of "togetherness"
While I'm excited about the whole conference, I'm especially keen to hear Lester Ruth's talk. In it he will consider how the different kinds of music which occur in the liturgy—from congregational singing to instrumental music, from “service” music to choral song, and possibly even "singing in the Spirit"—form us. In particular he'll look at the ways in which these musical forms enhance rather than foil our experience of “togetherness” in worship.

General cost of the conference $99, but for students, artists and church planters the cost is $49.

Video Invite
Here is a video invitation that Father Steve Breedlove and I shot on July 14. (My forehead is wrinkled half the time because of a wicked sun that kept bearing down on us.)


If you know anybody who might be interested in joining us, please pass along word of this event. Thanks so much!

(And thanks to Erik Newby for the excellent poster design. And thanks to Daniel Adkinson, fearless director of Anglican 1000, for his good partnership.)

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Rule of Storytellers

"When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it. . . . A story that is any good can't be reduced, it can only be expanded. A story is good when you continue to see more and more in it, and when it continues to escape you." -- Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners

If Plato was right, that those who tell the stories rule society, then J. K. Rowling deserves more than an Order of the British Empire. She deserves a small country. To rule. Benevolently.

In the spring of 1990 Rowling began to write a little story. That little story was completed six years later, and she would follow that by writing six more little stories. (The last little story, which some thought long, was half as long as Tolstoy's War and Peace and Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, so it really wasn't that long and most of us didn't mind either.)

Eventually her little story would be translated into 67 languages, including Khmer and Ancient Greek. Her little stories have sold 450,000,000 thus far, and if the experts are right that her protagonist will achieve the eternal fame of Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse, then our children's children will quadruple that number.

One day her little stories were made into movies. So far, and we've still a stretch to go, her movie stories have grossed approximately $6,459,205,142. It appears that the words "millions"and "billions" most accurately characterize the effect that her stories have on those who experience them.

If we add the tie-in merchandise, then her little stories are worth a solid US$15 billion, which roughly equals the GDP of Honduras according to the International Monetary Fund.

Universal Studios Orlando decided to create a theme park so that all human beings could experience Ms. Rowling's little stories for themselves, could exist inside of them, could indwell their favorite characters.

"Muggle" made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, to the delight of many.

For the release of Goblet of Fire, FedEx used 9,000 trucks with no other purpose than to deliver the book.

Eight video games in addition to Cluedo, Scene it? and Lego Harry Potter have been created to entertain adults and kids from dawn to dusk.

A few devoted followers of the little stories created a convention called LeakyCon. Included in its efforts is The Harry Potter Alliance which raised more than $123,000 for the people of Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake. The Alliance has also donated 88,000 books to kids in underprivileged countries.

This is all because they read and believed in the story of Harry Potter.

The literary critic A. N. Wilson praised Ms. Rowling's stories in The Times, stating: "There are not many writers who have JK’s Dickensian ability to make us turn the pages, to weep—openly, with tears splashing—and a few pages later to laugh, at invariably good jokes ... We have lived through a decade in which we have followed the publication of the liveliest, funniest, scariest and most moving children’s stories ever written."

Ms. Rowling, to bring my litany to a sharp economic point, has become the first billionaire author "thus far." It strikes me that she will be the only billionaire author far longer.

Somehow, someway, not altogether un-mysteriously, the little stories have quite literally changed the world.

J. K. Rowling believes that her little fictional stories have something to do with the fact that she believes in God, and not in any God either (and not because her parents were all that keen on Joanne going to church as a child). It is the God of Jesus Christ, whom the Spirit mysteriously makes to known to us, even in the secret places of the heart, that she believes.

If Stanley Hauerwas is right, that "both love and great art show us our world with a clarity which startles us because we are not used to looking at the real world at all,” then perhaps Rowling has disclosed something true about the world which God so loves that we would not have seen otherwise.

Perhaps the world has discovered something about love in the little stories which has awakened a yearning to know the source of all true loves.

Perhaps what is needed then are a few brave parents who will not only encourage their children to read such stories, and others like them--many others like them--and to appreciate such stories, but also to nurture their children to become storytellers themselves. Would that we had a few brave parents who, when they saw signs of giftedness, opened up all the stops and emptied the coffers to help their children to become storytellers by vocation, because they saw it as an important facet of God's economy of abundance. My hunch is that many such parents exist. May God bless their tribe.

It's just a little story, they say, a fictional one at that. But it's a story that will continue to rule the world, more powerfully I'm afraid than our best sermons or our most clever essays. Why? Because, like all good stories, the story of Harry Potter and the community of friends that surrounded him for seven years has captured our affections and our imaginations.

They say it all ends tonight. Yet it's really only just beginning.

Here's to going to the movie theater one last time in order to watch J. K. Rowling's final little story.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Questions of the preacher

“His throne is the pulpit; he stands in Christ’s stead; his message is the word of God; around him are immortal souls; the Savior, unseen, is beside him; the Holy Spirit broods over the congregation; angels gaze upon the scene, and heaven and hell await the issue. What associations, and what vast responsibility!” -- Matthew Simpson, Lectures on Preaching

I've been thinking about preaching lately. This past Sunday, while listening to David Hyman preach on John 5, I was struck by the art that's involved in preaching a good sermon. At the very least, preaching involves the art of rhetoric and the art of oratory. The one relates to the way in which words are organized and speech is persuasive. The other concerns the manner in which speech is delivered to an intended audience.

Doing both well requires a lot of hard work, specialized knowledge, years to hone the craft, a love for your hearers, a bit of talent and the humility to recognize that you can always learn something new, no matter how many times you've done it. (Then of course there is the Spirit of the God.)

This last element reminds me of the two things for which I am most grateful during my later years at Hope Chapel. As a member of the preaching team, I had two gifts: the gift of a team that helped me to discern what I was to preach in the Sunday to come and the gift of a list of questions.

The first gift was invaluable. It reminded me always of John Stott's experience at All Souls Church, which he recorded in Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today. It reminded me that wisdom occurs best "in the counsel of many," as per the Proverbs. It reminded me that before I could speak on behalf of the community, I needed to listen to the community. And in addition to my weekly meeting with Geno, Jack and Steve, I would often send emails to the congregation requesting their input so that the "word of the Lord," which the Spirit might speak to us, could become a word that took seriously the people in whom the Lord was already at work and in whom the Lord would put that "word" to continuous work.

The second gift is a list of questions that Geno and I hammered out together. We can't claim much originality. Both of us had been influenced by countless other preachers. But these questions served to order the discussions which occurred before we preached and after we preached, as both anticipatory and evaluative exercise. Rarely, in the aftermath, did we give ourselves high marks. We certainly kept trying, though. We at least knew what we could aim towards and we knew that we had each other's constant prayers and even last-minute-Saturday-night-revision-suggestions help.

I offer these questions, then, in the hope that they might encourage present and future preachers. They're the kind of practical questions that enable the preacher to cultivate the arts of rhetoric and oratory. By no means are they comprehensive. Nor do pretend to serve all ecclesial cultures. Nor of course do they substitute for the humble heart and the utter dependence upon the Spirit that a preacher requires for the sermon to begin to be effective. Yet if we wanted to become better preachers, these were the questions that kept us "training" toward that goal.


Evaluating the sermon already given:

1. Were you open and personable with the congregation? Were your gestures, body movement, posture, eye contact "fitting" or haphazard?
2. Was the task of your sermon clear?
3. Did the people understand clearly what you were calling them to live out? Was it concrete and simple or was it vague and complicated?
4. Could your sermon walk? Could the people envision throughout the week one thing they could be living out in discipleship as a result of your sermon?
5. Did you comfort and disturb?


6. What was the one thing you were trying to communicate? Not two things, not three or seven things, but the one thing?
7. Was your introduction strong? Did it capture attention, evoke need, relate clearly to the body of your sermon?
8. Was your conclusion strong and appropriately summarizing?
9. Was your use of Scripture sufficient and effective?
10. Did your illustrations serve the purpose of your sermon? Were they vivid and particular or were they fuzzy and distracting?
11. Were your transitions strong and clear? Was the movement from point to point clean, smooth, strong, natural? Or did you stumble or meander from point to point?
12. Did the form of your sermon serve the content?
13. And again: What was the one thing you were trying to say?

Use of Time:

14. How was your pacing?
15. What was your total time?
16. Did you try to say too much?
17. Did you spend the appropriate amount of time preparing?
18. Did you pray? Did you ask others to pray for you?

As you look ahead:

19. In what ways do you feel you are growing as a preacher? What areas do you wish to give attention to in order to grow stronger?
20. Did the message serve the mission of the church? Did it serve both the short-term and long-term discipleship of the church that God has made clear to the leadership?
21. Did you do a good job of connecting this sermon to the series which you're currently in and/or to the season of the church's life?
22. Have you helped the people have a clear sense of the big picture, of where things are going, of continuity?
23. Are you living what you're preaching?
24. Have the people seen the gospel transforming your life too?

Friday, July 01, 2011

Exercises in Mystery

"The mystery of God's life (Geheimnis) is strange to us (unheimlich) because we are not at home with it (daheim)." -- Bonhoeffer, Predigt am Sonntag Trinitatis, May 27, 1934

There are two basic elements to any good story and they are this:

1. That your audience keeps asking the question "What happens next?"

2. That the characters in your story, whether "man vs. man" or "man vs. society" or "man vs. self" (as per your 8th grade English class), are marked by substantial and believable wants in conflict. What the "man" wants is in conflict with what the "machine" wants. What you want is in conflict with what your destiny wants for you, which both "nature" and "supernature" play a role in determining.

A story that possesses neither of these elements is a story badly in need of rewriting. Or of scrapping altogether. Or it's simply a very, very bad story that somehow got published. A story that possesses only one of these elements will bore its audience. And a story that possesses both finds itself at the starting point of a good story, though nothing more. Between a starting point and a "classic" of storytelling is a lot of hard work, insight into the world, trained skill, generous but austere feedback, patronage, talent and a little bit of luck.

What makes me think of these things is the 18-minute talk J. J. Abrams gave at the TED conference in 2007 (see below). It's a pretty funny talk, too. I do recommend it. But the piece that captured my attention was Abrams' repeated emphasis on the importance of mystery to a good story. All good stories, he suggests, involve some component of mystery, some sense that a deeper reality lies beyond the audience's capacity to grasp yet leaves the audience feeling fuller rather than emptier because of it--fuller both because of the audience's encounter with mystery as well as because of its inability to finally or comprehensively grasp it.

His comments remind me of a sermon Dietrich Bonhoeffer once gave on the Trinity. He says:

"Mystery is not about things we do not know. It's not the star that is farthest away from us that is the greatest mystery to us, rather the opposite, the closer something comes to us, the more we come to know a thing, the more mysterious it becomes for us.  Not the person who is furthest away from us is the biggest mystery, but rather the nearest one."

Our tendency as human creatures, Bonhoeffer continues, is to resist the kind of mystery that marks God's world. We prefer to (scientifically) know things in order to use things. We employ the language of "the mastery of knowledge," because it helps us feel like we're still in control. Because we don't like the way it makes us feel small, we shrink from mystery. We construct physical and conceptual, relational and habitual apparatuses to shield us from it.

"The dearth of mystery in our modern life," he writes, "is our destruction and our poverty," and for Christians who allege to worship a God who exists mysteriously as three persons in one essence it is a shame that both our worship practices and our artistic practices resist or reject the mysterious character that marks our lives as creatures made in the image of this God.

Let me rephrase that sentence, in order to put it in a more personal context. It is a shame that conservative Protestantism exhibits such an allergic tendency to mystery.  It is a shame that our corporate worship often makes the most minimal space for mystery. We prefer to hear sermons that explain things definitely. We like to sing songs whose meaning we can account for on rational grounds. The architectural and artistic shape of our sanctuaries, whatever they may be, err on the utilitarian side, and if symbols are employed they tend to be safe ones--that's a fish, that's a cup, that's a flame. End of exchange.

This is a generalized broadside, I recognize. It does not describe all conservative Protestants. I happily acknowledge the many exceptions.

The more interesting point for me, then, is a practical one. If the large majority of our life as Christians is engaged in practices--whether liturgical or artistic, whether occupational or relational--that habituate us away from mystery and towards the pragmatic, rational and technical, how will we become a people who indwell the mystery of Christ, as saint Paul describes it? How do we become a people at home in the mystery of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit if the habits of our lives build muscles that make us averse to this mystery?

That's where I think what we do weekly in corporate worship matters. That's where I think that the kind of art we create and ingest matters. It matters not so much theoretically as concretely. It matters for the kinds of persons we in fact are, not for the kinds of persons we wish we were. Unless we are engaged in practices, daily and weekly, monthly and yearly, that cultivate an appetite, or to use Bonhoeffer's language, a sense of being at home with mystery, then we will remain the kinds of person who shrink from mystery rather than delve deep into it, rather than revel in it and thereby find ourselves becoming simultaneously smaller and bigger, more ourselves.

When we inhabit good stories, we acquire a "feel"for mystery. That feeling does not automatically translate into faith in Christ. Such faith requires conversion, and conversion usually involves a long and complex process if we're talking about the conversion of our whole lives towards Christ, which the Scriptures describe as discipleship. But good stories still have their place in our conversion stories. To the extent that they help us to imagine what we could become, or to allusively warn us against a more vicious version of ourselves, they serve the work of the Spirit. To the extent that they form in us a sense for the mysterious quality of God's world and for God himself, they serve a good role (and of course they do so much more than that).

It is for this reason that stories like the kind for which J. J. Abrams is responsible, such as LOST, ALIAS, "Cloverfield" and "Super 8," can be, quite literally, good for us. Whether he self-consciously seeks to accomplish this goal, Abrams' stories, which (often maddeningly) keep us asking the question, "What happens next?", serve as exercises in mystery; small "m" mystery perhaps but never far from large "M" mystery. In the talk that he gives at TED, Abrams both winsomely and perhaps again unknowingly serves as witness to the patterns of God's kingdom, and for that, as I plow through season 5 of LOST, I am grateful.

(Here below I include a video of Abrams' talk as well as two other artworks that caught my attention over the past week.)

1. J.J. Abrams' Mystery Box

2. A very funny take on artist's statements.

3. Malcolm Guite's "Love's Choice: A Sonnet for the Feast of Corpus Christi"

This is a beautiful sonnet by my British friend Malcolm Guite, who also happens to remind Phaedra and me of Tom Bombadil. The last line of this sonnet is especially stirring. Do yourself a favor and click the audio link so you can hear Malcolm reading the poem himself.