Friday, August 31, 2012

The Year of the Visual Arts

19th-century "Ecce-Homo" church fresco painting by Elias Garcia Martinez ruined DIY

It appears that the coming year will be the year of the visual arts for me. I'm not sure exactly how I got roped in to these events, especially when I have received no formal training in the visual arts. But I can't seem to escape its orbital pull and I've decided that there's no point in trying to, because it's here to stay and I might as well make the best of it.

Here are the places I'll be over the next year and I'd love to see you there, especially if you're within a 6,000-mile radius.

1. "For the (Visual) Beauty of the Church." The Faith Seeking Understanding Lecture Series at Gordon College in conjunction with The Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace at Gordon-Conwell Seminary and CIVA co-host this event on September 22 in Boston, MA.

Phaedra Taylor
I'll be giving a plenary talk here on the place of the visual arts in the life of the church. I'm joined by the inimitable Bruce Herman and the affable Cam Anderson as we together explore the interface between visual artists and the church gathered and scattered. It'll be my first time to visit Boston and I'm psyched. Here is where you register ($20/$10). Here is the poster for the event. And below is the official description for the event, which is open to the public. Hey New Englanders: y'all come out.

"Much of the great visual art in western history has both been inspired by Christian faith and formed Christian faith. Our Creator made things that were "pleasing to the eye," not just "good for" our mundane needs. Our Lord called attention to the gratuitous visual beauty of the lily. But in sad counterpoint, the church has often ignored, undervalued or even opposed the work of its creative artists. Pastors, ministry leaders, working artists, lovers of art, people of faith, connoisseurs as well as the merely curious: all are invited to a conversation to explore the place of the visual arts in the life of the church, both within its walls and outside its walls. Check out our spectacular presenters and tell your friends."

2. "Preaching in a Visual Age": a conference taking place November 1-3 in Los Angeles, California. A collaboration between the Lloyd John Ogilvie Institute of Preaching, the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology and the Arts, the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship, Christians In the Visual Arts and Ecclesia Hollwood, the conference will bring together speakers, music, art, and digital media in order to help paint a picture of what preaching the gospel needs to consider in a visual society.

Paul Hobbs "Three in One" (2002)


The title and description of my talk is this: "'Opus Oculi: On the Positive Role of the Eyes in Corporate Worship.' When Protestant Christians turn to a discussion of the visual aspect of the public worship space, they often revolve around two questions. What does the Bible say or not say about the visual aspect? And do I like it or do I not like it? Rarely do theological questions factor prominently. In this talk I wish to engage a double question of my own: 1) How might we think theologically about the nature of visuality and 2) What positive work does visual artwork perform in the public worship space?"

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 CICW), 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.

To see the schedule, go here. To register, go here. Here is the fuller explanation of the event:

John Martin, "The Last Judgement" (1853)
“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.
Kim En Joong -- Windows and Interior Design of the Chapel of the Dominican Monastery in Louvain-La-Neuve in Belgium


Michail Schnitmann "Flugeln" (2008)
3. The Calvin Symposium on Worship on January 24-26, 2013, among other liturgical things, will host a mini-version of the November "Preaching in a Visual Age" event. So if you missed the chance to fly to LA and see all your favorite celebrities walking down the street "just like us," then here's your chance to vacation in the yummy snowy climes of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and hang out with a lot of really smart people in the galaxy of all things related to Christian worship. The title of my seminar is: "Praying with the Eyes: Why the eyes have good work to do in worship and why it's not as easy as opening and closing them." Preachers include Marva Dawn and Greg Thompson. Presenters include Robin Jensen, Steven Guthrie,  He Qi, Brian Schrag, Sandra Bowden, Mark Gornik, Swee Hong Lim and Cornelius Plantinga, among others. Register here.


Albrecht Durer "Four Apostles" (1526)
4. CIVA's biennial conference, "JustArt," will gather at Wheaton College on June 13-16. Not only will it include a Part 3 to the "Preaching in a Visual Age" event in LA, it will also devote considerable energies to a church and arts track--in addition to a crucial series of investigations of the double entendre to the conference's title: "Is it just art?" "Can art be an act of justice?" "Does art require justification?" And so on.

More information coming soon.

5. Finally, I'll be trying out a few new ideas on students at Duke Divinity School and will have an opportunity to speak to church communities along the way, for whom the consequences of the visual arts are far from theoretical. It'll be a good year and I have my reading cut out for me. One chapter of the dissertation has already been set apart to explore these topics. And my good wife is a wonderful visual artist, who will continue to teach me how to look and how to appreciate the visual arts.

All this to say: I better know more by the end of a year than I do now.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

On the vocation of an artist: part III: The artist as prophet (I)

Ten Penny Prophet, 2008 - Jamie Baldridge

"The Prophet" by Aleksandr Pushkin (1826)

With soul athirst I wandered, lost,
Across a dark and desert land
And where at last two pathways crossed
I saw the six-winged Seraph stand.

With Fingers light as dream he turned

And brushed my eyes until they burned.
And then I saw strange visions rise

As through a startled eagle's eyes.

He lightly brushed my earthly ears
To bring the pounding of the spheres:

I heard the shuddering of the sky

The sweep of angel hosts on high,
The creep of monsters in the seas,

The seeping sap of valley trees.
Then leaning to my lips he wrung
From out of them my sinful tongue

And all its guile and perfidy;
And his right hand where blood was wet

Parted my palsied lips and set

A Serpent's subtle sting in me.

And with his sword he clove my breast
And took my quaking heart entire
And in my sundered breast he pressed
A coal alight with living fire.
There in the desert I lay dead
And heard the Voice of God who said:
"Arise O Prophet! Do My Will
For thou hast seen, and thou hast heard.
On land and sea thy charge fulfill
And burn Man's heart with this My Word."



The instinct today to describe artists as prophets is as common as it is irresistible. Visual artist Enrique Martinez Celaya, in a lecture delivered at Omaha's Joslyn Art Museum in the fall of 2009, said: "we will all break our backs trying to be artists-prophets, but this is a better fate than letting our backs calcify from lack of action or hunch over in shame." Greg Wolfe, editor of Image Journal, appealing to both Flannery O'Connor and St. Thomas Aquinas, suggests that the way to negotiate the tension that arises between the artist and the broader community is to take advantage of the biblical model of prophet. Christy Tennant Krispin, in a series of observations drawn from the 2011 Brehm Lectures, in response specifically to the lecture given by Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis, wonders out loud about the role of art as prophecy and the prophecy of art in our times. She comments:

"Prophets see contemporary situations with divine perspective, and as I look at the art created by some, I wonder, Is this artist not a prophet also? Emily Dickinson, Bono, Wendell Berry, Jacob Riss, Anselm Kiefer, Chaim Potok, and even Banksy are just a handful of artists who help me 'see contemporary situations with divine perspective'."

In a 2007 talk given to artists at the Laity Lodge, Murray Watts, the British playwright and landlord of a Scottish castle, argued the position that artists should see themselves as both servants and prophets. In Pentecostal circles, the prophetic artist will take on very specific, though not unusual, connotations. As one visual artist puts it, speaking representatively: "we strive to 'taste and see' what the Lord has for us and to 'paint the vision and make it plain'.”

The necessary and perhaps obvious thing to point out, as Deborah Haynes carefully elaborates in her book The Vocation of the Artist, is that the notion of artist as prophet is a recent historical category, surfacing in the 18th century and bound up in a complex of cultural and philosophical dynamics. In early nineteenth-century Germany, for example, it was believed that "artists of all kinds were blessed with a prophetic insight that was denied not merely to ordinary people, but even to men of learning." In 1834, the Frenchman HonorĂ© de Balzac insisted on the preeminence of the artist over the king, to the extent that kings ruled only briefly while artists ruled over centuries. He states:

"The artist is often a prophet whose vision is not so much the product of its own time as the augur of time to come."

The Russian Mikhail Bakhtin emphasized the artist's capacity not only to envision a new world but also "a new human being." His early 20th-century compatriot Mikhail Matiushin maintained that the artist in sacrificing to everyone, "opened eyes and taught the crowd to see" the true nature of the world, hidden to common sight. As he writes in a 1915 essay titled "The Artist": "The artist discovers the world and shows it to man." Whether grounded in something bigger than themselves (God or Nature) or on their own intuitive conviction (deemed bigger than "life as we know it"), Haynes, in less grandiose terms, believes the artist as prophet, on the one hand, possesses the capacity to receive a "message" and to discern its meaning for contemporary society and, on the other hand, is responsible to critique the disparities and hypocrisies of human behavior and to infuse his or her audience with a hopeful call to action.

If we were to summarize the kinds of things that are said about the idea of artist as prophet, four characteristics will be seen as recurring.

First, the prophet-artist is endowed with a capacity for special sight. Such an artist will be insightful (over against "ordinary" sight), far-sighted (over against myopic sight) or capable of pre-sight (divining the future or the eschatological implications for present living). Appealing to one of the common definitions for prophet in the Old Testament literature, the artist-prophet will regard herself, quite frankly, as "one who sees." In some cases she will be a mystic visionary. In other cases she will be the one who exposes to the light of truth the plain facts of life, which have too quickly become obscured. She will see what others cannot see or refuse to see; she will see them even if, in Tiresian fashion, it costs her the possibility of physical sight.

Second, the prophet-artist is one who chooses to live authentically. Integrity between vision and action will be paramount. He will look a certain way. He will behave in a fashion that might be at odds with "standard style." He will not be afraid to look directly into the ugly, shadowy, even terrifying dimension of human life. He will not be safe. He will trans-gress given boundaries and be a "disturber of the peace." He will likely suffer rejection for his work and might even be regarded as a traitor or a madman, or, worse, be dismissed as an idealist. He may live out an Orphic myth in preference to a common existence, choosing an alienated status to the status quo, much "like the mythological Orpheus, a religious leader, preserver of tradition, celebrant of the mysteries, leading society into the future," as Haynes explains.

Third, the prophet-artist will be a healer. While the hammer blow of judgment that results from her work may be painful, the prophet-artist ultimately aims at a better world. Whether social action or the mending of human relations is an explicit objective, and whether she appeals to an Ultimate Truth or to a more proximate one, including an "inner conviction of things," she will always hope for a regenerative outcome to her art. The prophet-artist perseveres by bearing the pain of the world. Even if it means exhausting herself to personal ruin, her witness to an authentic existence and to a world put to rights will continue beyond her death.

Fourth, the prophet-artist is a critic. If the world is a mess, the prophet-artist sees how and says so, even if nobody likes it. He will use unlikely methods to carry his message out: subversive tales and rationally inscrutable allegory, vicious irony and witty metaphors. He will be concerned not so much for the business of foretelling as for the business of forthtelling: saying it like it is as well as how it ought to be. The present will be judged in light of the past with a view to the future, and while it may take years to persuade his viewers and hearers, the "message spoken" will be satisfaction enough.

What then do we make of this notion? In the next entry I'll offer a few observations and six possible critiques. I'll also be tempted to recommend that we throw out the notion altogether, because it might be more confusing than clarifying for artists.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A spirituality of fourth place


Pop quiz: what do these people have in common?

1. Tianna Madison
2. Kenenisa Bekele
3. Torneus Michel
4. Kyazyeva Hanna
5. Daniel Gyurta
6. Gari Roba
7. David Green
8. Chris Brown
9. Jamie Nieto
10. Matt Centrowitz
11. Meb Keflezighi
12. Yun Hao
13. Lotte Friis
14. Catalina Ponor
15. Jinnan Yao
16. Phinney Taylor
17. Bernard Lagat
18. Hans van Alphen
19. Liu Hong
20. Alexsandr Balandin

Never heard of them? Probably not, and you likely won't ever again. Not if the market has anything to say about it.

They have the same thing in common with Lolo Jones and Tyson Gay: they placed fourth. In their given event at the 2012 Olympic Games, they came in seconds, even thousandths of a second, behind third place and therefore short of a bronze medal and the podium and the admiration of millions of viewers around the world.

They were invisible to us.

Six days a week of disciplined effort, costly sacrifice, self-denial, early morning, un-glamorous workouts, frustration and tears and self-doubt, for four years non-stop for a twelve-second race. 12 seconds. And you run 10 one-hundreths of a second slower than third place; and while Lolo Jones still received media attention (though not the kind she wished), everybody else on this list will be forgotten. Un-seen.

I turned to Phaedra the night that Lolo placed an agonizing fourth and said:

"I think fourth place in the Olympics is like the Christian life: lots of tedious, hard work, sacrifices that no one will ever know about. No one sees it--except (maybe) the people you live with. That sucks. That really sucks."

And it did for Lolo. I don't know if it sucked for the twenty people on that list above, but I bet for many of them it hurt. Place fifth: ok. Place tenth or thirty-eighth: ok. Place fourth? It's so close to something you badly wanted and you came away with a heartbreaking, perhaps irreparable feeling of loss, and now you will be forgotten by the people who keep a record of history.

The athletes that were interviewed by NBC during the Olympics repeated three words over and over to describe their experience of preparation: discipline, sacrifice, family.

I figure it's no different for Christians: discipline, sacrifice, family. Of one thing I am certain: we'll go crazy if we don't have some form of the latter. Biological family, spiritual family, friendship family--without it, the Christian life too often feels unbearable.

Today I am grateful for my family.

Lolo Jones in a photo-finish for fourth

Monday, August 06, 2012

Top 35 books on theology and the arts

Michael Phelps: big winner, big eater

Over the years I've been asked to recommend books in the field of Christianity and the arts. What's embarrassing is that I often find myself stumbling for a good answer. Partly it's due, I think, to a hesitation to narrow down a "best of" list, when I'm still learning the field. Partly it's due to the fact that the field is relatively young and, unlike homiletics or mission, there isn't much to choose from and the field is as yet more eclectic than coherent. Perhaps fifty years down the line things will have changed. But to be asked to choose a top ten here is like being asked to choose your favorite "event" at Epcot Center or your favorite food at the Olympic Village. It depends. On a lot of factors.

Consider this, then, a starter's list. If you're interested in joining the conversation at a serious level, these books are non-negotiable. You need to know them. They reflect admittedly a Protestant (and perhaps European-American) bias, but whether you're a student, pastor, teacher, ministry leader, artist or self-proclaimed renaissance man, these books will introduce you to the basic grammar, vocabulary, framework and set of questions that mark the field (broadly speaking) of theology and the arts.

Happy readings (and, yes, please tell me which books I should have included in the list).


Top 35 Recommended Books on Theology and the Arts


1.     Begbie, Jeremy.  Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.
2.     Begbie, Jeremy, ed. Beholding the Glory: Incarnation through the Arts. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000. 
(I’d also suggest the third section of his book Voicing Creation’s Praise: Towards a Theology of the Arts.)
3.     Brand, Hilary and Adrienne Chaplin.  Art & Soul: Signposts for Christians in the Arts.  Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 1999.
4.     Brown, Frank Burch.  Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
5.     Brown, Frank Burch. Inclusive, Yet Discerning: Navigating Worship Artfully. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.
6.     Buechner, Frederick. Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale. New York: HarperOne, 1977.
7.     Bustard, Ned, ed. It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God. Baltimore, MD: Square Halo Books, 2006.
8.     Crouch, Andy. Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. Downers Grove, Il.: IVP, 2008.
9.     De Gruchy, John W. Christianity, Art, and Transformation: Theological Aesthetics in the Struggle for Justice. 
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
10.  Dyrness, William A. Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.
11.  Guite, Malcolm. Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination. Farnham: Ashgate, 2010.
12.  Guthrie, Steven R. Creator Spirit: The Holy Spirit and the Art of Becoming Human. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011.
13.  Jensen, Robin. The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith, and the Christian Community. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.
14.  Johnson, Robert K. Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007).
15.  L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (New York: Shaw Books, 2001).
16.  Maritain, Jacques. Art and Scholasticism. London: Sheed and Ward, 1933.
17.  Matthewes-Green, Frederica. The Open Door: Entering the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2008.
18.  Noland, Rory. The Heart of the Artist. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999.
19.  O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1961.
20.  Peterson, Eugene. Subversive Spirituality. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.
21.  Potok, Chaim. My Name is Asher Lev. New York: Anchor, 2003.
22.  Rookmaaker, Hans.  Modern Art & the Death of Culture.  Leicester: IVP, 1970; reissued Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994.
23.  Ryken, Leland, ed. The Christian Imagination: The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing. Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook Pres, 2002.
24.  Sayers, Dorothy L.  The Mind of the Maker.  San Francisco: Harper, 1987.
25.  Schaeffer, Francis. Art and the Bible. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2006.
26.  Seerveld, Calvin.  Rainbows for a Fallen World: Aesthetic Life and Artistic Task.  Toronto: Tuppence Press, 1980.
27.  Seerveld, Calvin. Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves: Alternative Steps in Understanding Art.  Toronto: Tuppence Press, 2000.
28.  Taylor, W. David O., ed. For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2010.
29.  Thiessen, Gesa Elsbeth. Theological Aesthetics: A Reader. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.
30.  Treier, Daniel J. and Mark Husbands and Roger Lundin, eds. The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts. Downers Grove, Il.: IVP, 2007.
31.  Turner, Steve. Imagine: A Vision for Christians and the Arts, IVP, 2001
32.  Viladesau, Richard.  Theological Aesthetics: God in Imagination, Beauty, and Art.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
33.  Von Balthasar, Hans Urs. The Glory of the Lord: Seeing the Form, “Introduction.” San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982.
34.  Williams, Rowan. Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love. London: Continuum, 2005.
35.  Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Art in Action. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980.