Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Preaching In A Visual Age: a conference

"Wittenberg Altarpiece," the predella of the altar, by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1547)

Good friends, I have the privilege of participating in a very exciting conference, occurring on November 1-3, 2012, at Ecclesia, Hollywood. The conference is part of the 2012 Brehm Lectures in Worship, Theology and the Arts. Fellow plenary speakers include Pete Docter (director of Monsters, Inc and Up), Bobette Buster (creative director for folks like Tony Scott, Larry Gelbart and Ray Stark), Bill Dyrness (author of Reformed Theology and Visual Culture: The Protestant Imagination from Calvin to Edwards), Ralph Winter (producer of X-Men movies and the early Star Trek films) and Betsy Halstead (maven of visual arts at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship), among others. I've included below the opening description of the conference, penned by organizer and fearless leader Mark Labberton. For all info, see here. Oh, and the inimitable Brian Moss will be there too, thank God.

(The painting above and the video below are the kinds of things I'll be interested in exploring within the context of the corporate worship space.)

“In our world we sleep and eat the image and pray to it and wear it too,” novelist Don DeLillo observed. Images, Susan Sontag concludes, have turned the world into a place where people “become customers or tourists of reality.” And now, with sophisticated technology everywhere—right down to the phone in your pocket—we have become creators and producers of reality as well.

From St. Augustine to Martin Luther, and from George Whitfield to MLK Jr., preaching the gospel has been the very heart of the Christian church’s approach to renewal and engaging society with the claims of God and God’s Kingdom.  But things are rapidly changing, not least about communication.  Many preachers and Christians wonder:
  • What place does “preaching” have in our image-shaped world?
  • How do we bring the gospel word to people inundated by images?
  • What does Jesus —‘the Word made visual’—teach us about the living Word?

Preaching in a Visual Age invites pastors, theologians, visual artists, filmmakers, media professionals, and Christian leaders to come together to grapple with these questions and more.  Speakers, music, art, and digital media will be drawn from in order to help paint a picture…a picture of what preaching the gospel needs to consider in a visual society.

Whether you are a pastor, an artist, part of the entertainment industry, or simply someone who is passionate about engaging your world with the gospel, you will find this conference inspiring and thought provoking.  We encourage you to join us as we explore what it means to be Preaching in a Visual Age.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

T-minus five to the 2012 Olympic Games

I am an Olympian
Will it be Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochthe? Will "Dream Team 2.0" or the "World" take the basketball finals? Will Lolo Jones make it cool again to be a virgin? Will the Jamaican men's 4X100 sprint relay crush the record again? Will (Jordyn) Wieber fever vanquish (Justin) Bieber fever? Will Bradley Wiggins' win at this year's Tour de France portend a British medal haul? Will Sebastian Coe and Co. deliver a stellar opening ceremony or will it be corny?

And what's up with the American uniforms being made in China, while the Russian ones are being produced in the US? (FYI: cost of each US men's outfit is $1,915, while the women's outfits are ironically cheaper, tallying at $1,473.)

Whatever the answer to these questions, Phaedra and I ready to forfeit two weeks of our life to plunge into the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat that marks the 2012 Olympic Games. All we need is a TV. Or significantly improved internet service. Or neighbors with a Plasma. But dissertations can wait. Food can be ordered in. Emails can sit tight. And artmaking will have to occur while we watch morning, noon, night, and midnight broadcasts of the drama unfolding around the city of London.

In honor of the greatest sporting event on planet earth, here are a few videos to fire up the blood pressure at unhealthy but bearably high levels as we count the days down to Friday evening. Consider this your one-stop shop for Olympic (advertising) inspiration.

We start with a homage, courtesy of the film director Alejandro González Iñárritu, to the sacrifices that all parents make on behalf of their children. (Then Blythe's maiden Olympic swim.)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Texas poet and an Avatar Poem

In honor of our current visit to the Lone Star State, I'm including here a poem by the Texas-born poet Mary Karr. I'm also including, just for the heck of it and not because he has any connections to Texas--though perhaps he should--a poem by Aaron Belz which I read in the public lecture I gave Sunday evening. Enjoy.

DESCENDING THEOLOGY: Christ Human (by Mary Karr)

Such a short voyage for a god,
and you arrived in animal form so as not
to scorch us with your glory.
Your mask was an infant’s head on a limp stalk,
sticky eyes smeared blind,
limbs rendered useless in swaddle.
You came among beasts
as one, came into our care or its lack, came crying
as we all do, because the human frame
is a crucifix, each skeletos borne a lifetime.
Any wanting soul lain
prostrate on a floor to receive a pouring of sunlight
might—if still enough,
feel your cross buried in the flesh.
One has only to surrender,
you preached, open both arms to the inner,
the ever-present hold,
out-reaching every want. It’s in the form
embedded, love adamant as bone.
In a breath, we can bloom and almost be you.

Avatar: A poem (by Aaron Belz

 Blue computer graphics woman
 with smooth cat nose, you are
 purer, more in touch with nature,
 and actually quite a bit taller than I--
 and although you've discovered
 that your soul mate is really just a
 small, physically challenged white guy
 gasping for air in a mobile home,
 you've decided to stick with him.
 I'd taken you for one of those shallow
 pantheistic utopian cartoon giantesses,
 but now I see that I was way off.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

On the vocation of an artist: Part II

René François Ghislain Magritte (1898-1967)

"All art is an imitation of nature." Seneca (4 BC - 65 AD)

"Man is god over all the material elements, for he uses, modifies and forms them all." Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499)

If you haven't done this exercise yet, I'll go ahead and encourage you to do it now (and I'll keep persisting till this series is completed because I think something valuable might be gained in doing it). Before reading the following post, fill out the following sentence:

"The vocation of an artist is...."

Now that you've filled it out, I'll continue part two of my series on the vocation of an artist.

Part one concluded with this statement: "When you enter into discussion with fellow Christians, the situation unfortunately isn’t much better...especially when we encounter the all-too-ready appeal to the notion of artist as prophet."

Our good man Cole Matson launched a fine salvo on the topic, and while I'm tempted to plunge into the question of "artist as prophet," I'm going to hold off at least one more entry. For now, I'll survey a range of ways in which Christians have conceived of an artist's vocation. While not comprehensive by any means, the views I've included are generally representative of the kinds of comments one will find throughout Christian history. I begin with an Inkling.

Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) once identified the distinguishing feature of an artist as the capacity to "co-create," in a fashion, that is, analogous to God's creativity (the verb is intentionally placed in quotation marks), and few declarations have stirred up as much feeling in 20th century discussions of art, though perhaps especially in Protestant circles, as this one.

While Madeleine L'Engle ran with the idea in her book Walking on Water, the Dutch Reformed philosopher Calvin Seerveld felt that it led dangerously to elitist notions about the vocation of artists with respect to other human vocations. In its stead he encouraged us to view the artist as a co-cultivator. Working within a similar theological tradition, Nicholas Wolterstorff, who expressly operates with the "royal" imagery of the book of Genesis, argues that the artist should be seen as a responsible gardener of the world.

Jeremy Begbie, in Voicing Creation's Praise, advances the idea of artist as "priest of creation." Through the artist, he writes, "the inarticulate (though never silent) creation becomes articulate.” Four ways in which artists function as priests, he suggests, are these. First, it includes a discovery of and respect for the mysteries of creation. Second, it involves a development of the hidden treasures and structures of the created world. Third, there is a redeeming of disorder, “a renewal of that which has been spoiled,” which is what he would call the negative dimension of creativity--that is, the pronouncement of judgment on all that disfigures the world and an exposing of the ugliness of sin. And finally, our creative priesthood takes place within a corporate context, mirroring the creative activity of the Trinitarian God.

Moving in the direction of Rome, Pope Benedict XVI, in his "Address" at the Sistine Chapel, Nov. 21, 2009, paraphrasing Pope John Paul II, talked about the artist's calling as that of "rendering accessible and comprehensible to the minds and hearts of our people the things of the spirit, the invisible, the ineffable, the things of God himself.” While Flannery O'Connor would have been sympathetic to this view of things, she stated the matter more plainly: "If writing is your vocation, then, as a writer, you will seek the will of God first through the laws and limitations of what you are creating; your first concern will be the necessities that present themselves in the work."

This way of orienting the vocation of an artist is one that she owes, in part, to the mid-twentieth century French Catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritain.  Over the course of his writings, in particular in Art and Scholasticism, he emphasized the delicate distinction between the Christian as Christian and the artist as artist, which O'Connor in turn sought to embody in her life's work. It's a distinction that has bedeviled Christians from the start. It still does. As Maritain puts it:

"Do not separate your art from your faith. But leave distinct what is distinct. Do not try to blend by force what life unites so well. If you were to make of your aesthetic an article of faith, you would spoil your faith. If you were to make of your devotion a rule of artistic activity ... you would spoil your art. The entire soul of the artist reaches and rules his work, but it must reach it and rule it only through the artistic habitus. Art tolerates no division here.... Christian work would have the artist, as artist, free."

If we return to our earliest history, we find a general agreement revolving around a Hellenistic idea of the artist's calling. Working up against the backdrop of art as "imitation," Gregory of Nyssa gives voice to the patristic mind when he writes:

"Therefore, just as when we are learning the art of painting, the teacher puts before us on a panel a beautifully executed model, and it is necessary for each student to imitate in every way the beauty of that model on his own panel, so that the panels of all will be adorned in accordance with the example of the beauty set before them; in the same way, since every person is the painter of his own life, and choice is the craftsman of the work, and the virtues are the paints for executing the image, there is no small danger that the imitation may change the Prototype into a hateful and ugly person instead of reproducing the master form if we sketch in the character of evil with muddy colors."

Imitation here is not to be thought as slavish mimicry but rather a faithful re-presentation of the earthly domain or of God's domain, of reality or of Reality.

Finally, you hang around the church long enough and you'll no doubt hear this plaintive cry:

“All I want is for my art to give glory to God.”

This, to my mind, is the worse kind of statement. Not only does it present itself as self-evident, when it is anything but that, it also results in making the nearby listener feel all the worse because he should know what that means and he dare not disagree for fear of being seen as the heathenish brother. Who doesn't want their work to glorify God?

The problem with this last statement is that it fails to state anything distinctive about the vocation of an artist. In attempting to say everything that matters, it unfortunately says nothing at all, nothing that discloses concrete understanding about an artist's calling. In point of fact, one might press the same question to all the above statements: In what way exactly is any of it unique to an artist?

How are educators not also co-creators? How are politicians and engineers not also called to be responsible gardeners of the world? Are not businesswomen also co-cultivators? Is not the work of a pastor also, in some measure, that of a priest of creation? Do designers of highway billboards render accessible the invisible and ineffable or is this the exclusive prerogative of singer-songwriters and authors of literary fiction?

And isn't your mother also prophetic? At least maybe in hindsight? I think so, and it is the difference between a biblical prophet, an artist as prophet and your mother as prophet that I hope to explore in the next entry.