Friday, September 28, 2012

Violence & Images

Destruction of art and sculpture in Zurich (1524)

"These publications will not cost lives. Who killed people? We are not killing people, I'm sorry. We are not the violent ones. We are just journalists. [We are just cartoonists.]" -- Gerard Biard, editor-in-chief of French magazine Charlie Hebdo

David Freedberg, the Pierre Matisse Professor of the History of Art and Director of the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America at Columbia University, opens his masterful book The Power of Images with the following declaration:

“People are sexually aroused by pictures and sculptures; they break pictures and sculptures; they mutilate them, kiss them, cry before them, and go on journeys to them; they are calmed by them, stirred by them, and incited to revolt. They give thanks by means of them, expect to be elevated by them, and are moved to the highest levels of empathy and fear. They have always responded in these ways; they still do.”

This is an apt reminder in the wake of the movie, "Innocence of Muslims," which ostensibly launched an incendiary wave of protests across the (radical) Muslim world. Only a week later, the French magazine Charlie Hebdo published cartoons featuring the prophet Muhammed in "questionable" postures and activities. As a precaution to violent outbreaks, France closed embassies and schools in around 20 countries; it also officially banned protests. As a pro-active measure to bring this blasphemous behavior to a stop, a Pakistani railways minister, in a move reminiscent of Darth Vader and Boba Fett, placed a $100,000 bounty on the head of the filmmaker.

For Americans, immersed in a philosophical and cultural ether that exists in an alternate universe to pro-Al Qaeda and Salafist-styled Islam, it's literally inconceivable that an artist and his movie could be held responsible for the reactions of viewers. "It's just a movie, so help us God." And by implication, the artist has a right to express his views, just as the viewers have a right to watch or not to watch the movie. "Take it or leave, but don't blame me for your response. That's your responsibility, not mine." The transaction is ultimately one that takes place between self-subsistent individuals. This kind of attitude is what James Davison Hunter calls a cultural "given." It's the unquestioned assumption that hides within the subconscious of a society, and as the case may be, it's also the dangerous sort of assumption precisely because we remain blind to it.

That a filmmaker could injure an entire country or people group is not only incomprehensibly foreign, it's also irritating to Americans. All you had to do was observe the Facebook posts around the time of this ruckus to watch western philosophical aesthetics in action: "Freedom of speech! An inalienable right! Don't blame the movie! WTF?!"

The curious thing, of course, is that this kind of American (and European) attitude towards art and society is the exception rather than the rule in human history. From the patristic era to the Medieval Age to the century of Reformation to the early years of the American Republic to a thousand tongues and tribes on the planet, Christians have known that images are powerful and that their use or non-use affects the welfare of an entire society, and that the responsibility for their relative use is a social one, not a solitary one. I won't say that this debate can be easily resolved, but I will say that our assumptions must be questioned, because, well, we're really screwed if we don't. David Morgan, in Icons of American Protestantism, puts it this way: “An image is never simply what an artist says it is but is also what the artist’s training, publisher, dealer, market, audience, and critics say it is.” In other words, it's what a society says it is.

I'll pause here for now, but I wanted to pass along a few noteworthy treatments of this eruption of passion in response to the YouTube video. These are the kinds of articles that inspire clarity of mind rather than more muddled thinking.

By the way, I'll also say that there has been a lot of hypocritical, neanderthal thinking that alleges to defend Muslims over against the so-called offensive speech of the "Innocence of Muslims" movie. These are the kinds of arguments that we would never hear in defense of outraged Christians who feel, whether legitimately or not, that Michael Moore, Bill MaherChris Ofili, and Martin Scorsese have done harm to Christian faith. Christians would inevitably be told to shove it and to quit being hypersensitive babies. This is a lame article, for example.

The better kind are these, excerpts included:

1. Ross Douthat, "It's Not About the Video" (The New York Times)

"There is a cringing way to make this mistake, embodied by the apologetic press release that issued from the American embassy in Cairo on Tuesday as the protests outside gathered steam, by the Obama White House’s decision to lean on YouTube to take the offending video down, and by the various voices (including, heaven help us, a tenured Ivy League professor) suggesting that the video’s promoters be arrested for abusing their First Amendment liberties. But there’s also a condescending way to make the same error, which is to stand up boldly for free speech while treating the mob violence as an expression of foaming-at-the-mouth unreason, with no more connection to practical politics than a buffalo stampede or a summer storm."

2. Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, "Fighting Over God's Image" (The New York Times)

"In the early Republic, many Americans avoided depicting Jesus or God in any form. The painter Washington Allston spoke for many artists of the 1810s when he said, “I think his character too holy and sacred to be attempted by the pencil.” A visiting Russian diplomat, Pavel Svinin, was amazed at the prevalence of a different image: George Washington’s. “Every American considers it his sacred duty to have a likeness of Washington in his home,” he wrote, “just as we have images of God’s saints.”"

3. Bret Stephens, "Muslims, Mormons and Liberals" (The Wall Street Journal)

"So let's get this straight: In the consensus view of modern American liberalism, it is hilarious to mock Mormons and Mormonism but outrageous to mock Muslims and Islam. Why? Maybe it's because nobody has ever been harmed, much less killed, making fun of Mormons.... Finally, it need be said that the whole purpose of free speech is to protect unpopular, heretical, vulgar and stupid views. So far, the Obama administration's approach to free speech is that it's fine so long as it's cheap and exacts no political price. This is free speech as pizza."

4. Jonathan V. Last, "A One-Man Department of Justice: Batman as the American Hero" (The Weekly Standard)

(NB: this would be the article that "explains" how Americans thinking about rectifying justice.)

"But Batman is different. He is not an avatar for a particular political argument or idea. Batman is about the liberal order itself​—​specifically about the durability of classical liberalism in the face of modernity.... What Nolan is saying in The Dark Knight is that our social order is far more fragile than it seems, and that even democracy is not sufficient to maintain it. Upholding the liberal order requires larger guiding forces​—​such as religion and natural law, as suggested by the ferry dilemma. And sometimes maintaining order requires illiberal actions, such as those undertaken by Batman."

Bonus article: This academic article just landed in my inbox, courtesy of my friend Tanner Capps and Jessica Wong.

5. Marie‐José Mondzain, "Can Images Kill?" (Critical Inquiry 36.1 [Autumn 2009], 20-51).

"Who today would deny that images are an instrument of power over bodies and minds? Such power, conceived over the course of twenty centuries of Christianity as liberating and redemptive, is now suspected to be the instrument of alienation and domination. Images are considered to have incited the crime when a murder seems to have been modeled after fictions shown on screen. The accused parties blame such fictions. But who is actually guilty, those who kill or those who produce and circulate images? Culpability and responsibility are terms attributable only to persons, never to things. And images are things. Let's abandon this strange rhetoric."

Friday, September 14, 2012

Happy Birthday, Ruby Blythe Marie (part 1)!

The "pulgita" princess of earth and sky

After twenty-two hours of labor, three hours of pushing, a transfer from the Women's Birth and Wellness Center to the UNC Hospital, and one tiger-strong but exhausted mother, Ruby Blythe Marie Taylor entered our world at 10:46 pm on Sunday, September 11, 2011, weighing 7 lbs 11 oz, measuring 22 and 3/4 inches. Simply put, it was a terrifying and mesmerizing experience watching Phaedra bear this child into the world.

Thank God for the prayers of family and friends. Thank God for midwifes--midwives for president, I say.

Today (writing this on the actual day of her birthday, September 11) we have arrived at the beginning of many truisms: How did a year go by so fast? How did Blythe go from a wrinkled prune to our favorite "pulgita" of one year?

How did we make it through those first three months and how do we begin forestalling boyfriends, driver's licenses, awkward pre-teen spells, departures to college and the loss of her baby years? We don't, of course, but we do everything in our power to savor each moment from here on.

It's safe to say, though, that we're madly in love with Blythe. As we look back on a year of life with her, here are some of the images that we will be sure to treasure. This first batch of images will evoke the village that has been required to rear her, while the next batch (in part two of this blog) will involve the wild and wooly.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The art of being (mis)placed

I was kindly asked to contribute an essay to Christianity Today's "This is Our City" project in response to Nathan Clarke's short film that featured installation artist Craig Goodworth. I'm including here an excerpt from my essay, the film itself, a "land" poem by my friend Aaron Belz, and a "guerrilla art installation" in Riga, Latvia that I wish I could have been a part of. It goes without saying that I was honored to be included in a project that impresses with every output (on cities, say, like Portland, Detroit, Richmond, and Phoenix, to which my essay is attached).

The art of being (mis)placed
"... Sometimes you leave your hometown in order to find your place elsewhere. Sometimes you leave your place of birth only to return years later and find that you belong there after all. Or more grandly, as Kathleen Norris puts it, 'A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.' Here is where you belong. Here is where you will stay put. It is your place and it is ourplace together....

My confession? I feel misplaced in my current city. While I know plenty of people who thoroughly love Durham, North Carolina, I fluctuate between total ambivalence and intense aversion to the city. It is a city that irritates me almost daily. After living here for three years, I have made my peace with the fact that Durham will be the first city in my life that I will be happy to leave....

But artists come along and perform an invaluable service. For those of us who feel a tenuous or adverse relationship to our places of residence, artists help us to see that, in fact, God is happily at work here, quietly making grace happen in unexpected ways, gently rebuking our stubborn refusal to see that salvation and sanctification are occurring in this place—this street, this humidity, this church, this grocery store, these people...."

(Aaron Belz)

Tilling Charles Reznikoff’s back yard
Brought up a dozen lions andseveral patches
Of wildebeest hearts.

The home itself sat lively in endless shadow,
Its picture windows gazing half-wittedly
In five directions.

Inside, a phone sang triumphantly,
The sole technological hormone driving
Countless blushing shutters.

But my errand had to do withgrass,
So I sat and thought alone in endless shadow,
Speaking to myself

On the bed of wild violet that formed a border
Between Charles Reznikoff’s back yard
And my own,

Making no sound. Making no sound.
Making no sound. As I stood to look around,
Verbs fell everywhere.

His awkward roof repelled them blankly,
Staring wakefully over the wild, half-witted yard
That formed its bed.

Downfall morphed into downpour, and of a sudden
Cartoon-like animals emerged from thickets,
Surrounding that home,

And I must have looked like a startled duck,
Trees above my head whippingmadly,
A car pulling up.

Such a schedule had been in my mind,
Such a tedious map, that could not even hear
The writer at work.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Retreat for ministers to artists: 2013 udpate

It gives me great pleasure to announce our 2013 retreat speakers. Isaac Wardell, captain of the impressive Bifrost Arts effort, will lead our worship and introduce us to some creative congregational singing, while James K. A. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College, will present two talks related to the imagination. As I mentioned to him in a recent email, my goal over the next three years at the Laity Lodge is, God-willing, to investigate three constituent features of an artist's calling: the caretakership of the imagination, the stewardship of the affections, and the service to sensory-material reality. This retreat will focus on the first feature, and while Jamie will consider it from philosophical and likely literary perspectives with a view to the marketplace, I'll offer a talk on the topic specifically geared to the ecclesial context.

It goes without saying that I feel very lucky to be able to partner with Laity Lodge on these retreats. I also feel lucky to grow and to learn with a group of folks that come from all professions and engagements with artists, from full-time pastors to directors of arts centers to art educators to "regular" lay persons--a humble but infinitely interesting bunch of people, all of whom share a common love of artists and a desire to disciple them well.

To see what we've done in previous years, please go here (2010), here (2011), here and here. Here are some of the things that Charlie Peacock and Sandra Organ-Solis shared at last year's retreat.

If you'd like to register for the retreat, please go here and scroll down till you get to March 7-10, 2013.

As Jamie Smith describes his move from Loyola Marymount University in California to Grand Rapids in the early 2000s, he took up "a position as Professor of Philosophy here at Calvin College where I also teach in the Department of Congregational and Ministry Studies and serve as a Research Fellow of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. I also occasionally teach in the PhD program at Calvin Theological Seminary and have been a visting professor at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, and Regent College in Vancouver, BC. We live in the East Hills neighborhood of Grand Rapids, a wonderfully diverse, mixed-use older neighborhood in the core city. Our family now attends Neland Ave. Christian Reformed Church. We enjoy gardening, cooking, and wine with friends. And at the end of the day, I'm happy to put Derrida and Foucault on the shelf at the office and curl up at home with a book of poems by Donald Hall or a novel by Thomas Wolfe."

Isaac Wardell for his part "has been involved in church music and worship since very early childhood, singing in church pageants and performing sacred music with the Memphis Boys Choir. He began leading worship on a regular basis in high school, and went on to study music at Covenant College. Before coming to Trinity Presbyterian Church, in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2009, Isaac worked as director of music at churches in Tennessee, Georgia and New York. Isaac also works as the director of Bifrost Arts. He and his wife Megan have a daughter. They live in the City Parish." And he's a red-head, which automatically makes him cool. And he once shared worship-leading duties with David Crowder and Israel Houghton, which I was fortunate to witness, and it will probably count as one of the musical worship highlights of the decade for me.

More details on both our speakers and on the retreat itself coming soon. Please pass word along to anyone you think might be interested in joining this wonderful gathering along the Frio River.