Friday, October 31, 2008

I have no talent for politics

...and, this, I quote directly from Paul Giamatti's character, John Adams, in the HBO film named, well, John Adams. The quote struck me funny as I watched the film because for someone who has no "talent for politics" he is extremely influential in the forming of our nation.

I was reminded again of this quote in reference to myself as I do my best in these last days before our nation's election to bring a sound mind and clear conscience into the voting booth. I am perplexed because I do not see my way clearly to vote for either of the candidates of the two major US political parties. I know what buttons I will push on November 4 if I receive no further light. That being said, the unconvinced state I am in is perplexing to me.

Out of all the resources and wealth -- financially and intellectually -- of our nation, the fact that the two best candidates we can muster are both so unappealing to my beliefs and sensibilities is, well I don't know a better word that is also polite -- perplexing. Author and film critic,Jeffrey Overstreet adequately sums up my own feelings about voting during this election, I’m happy to consider voting for a third party, as a symbolic vote of my support for the cultivation of a good third option. I’d also be delighted to be able to say that my vote was more about being for someone than against someone. [Note: you'll see later in this post that my husband does not necessarily feel the same way about a third party option!]

I have read enough to know the 'big ticket items' for the candidates in the Democratic and Republican parties. I know the moral stance. I know the accusations and the character flaws. I know firmly what my feelings are on each of those issues. I am not perplexed because I am uneducated or wishy-washy. I am perplexed because I have a deep desire for a greater process -- one that calls us up toward greater abilities to think and discern and discuss and decide. Instead, our process seems to pigeon-hole and dumb-down and polarize. When I watched the HBO film on John Adams, (I am not intending to evaulate this as a film right now -- only the medium for a re-telling of a very important story. Oh, yeah, and I'm a big fan of both Giamatti and Laura Linney, so that helps. ) I tried to lay that scenario over our own current one and it's like two different countries with two different peoples.

Of course, we know much about the quirks and sins and character flaws of our founding fathers. When I was in Boston recently, our Freedom Trail guide was only too happy to point them out for us as we stood around Paul Revere and John Hancock and Sam Adams' crumbly grave markers. The pantaloons he wore matched well his jester-y tone as he informed us that, had we been in the founding fathers three-cornered hats, we too would have been able to create a new nation. Ladies and Gentleman, dismiss any thoughts you may have about our founding fathers' nobility or valor! With a wink and a nod, he assured any men in our group who may be tipsy, womanizing tax-cheaters, they, too, could be nation-formers and revolution-leaders!

You see, this is what I'm talking about. Why must we bring the gestures of debate and election and nation-keeping to the same level of conversation as canine cosmetics and plumber cracks? (FOR THE RECORD: I choose not to lump certain political comedy sketches into this same category -- there is such a thing as comedic genius, after all!) Are we so insecure that we can not bear the threat of walking alongside greater skilled, intelligent and sacrificing persons? Unless we see a politician walking around in cowboy boots or flip-flops with diner eggs and bacon on his plate or beer foaming out of his hoisted mug, are we so unable to trust his ability to serve our country?

And just for the heck of it and because, well, it's MY blog, I'd like to call this tendency to distrust anyone who dares to rise above the lowest common denominator a blue collar dumbing down of our political process. I know some would call it populist. But that’s a little too hoity-toity of a term for this point. Blue collar works just fine – bottoms up!

The other sort of dumbing-down that so often comes attached to the election process (especially in the party in which I've been most experienced) is what I think I'll now refer to as a white collar dumbing-down. It's a little bit more sophisticated and only slightly more subtle. It exists in most of the political statements delivered in all-caps, 18 point-Helvetica with multiple exclamation points. It thrives on alarmist fear-mongering and self-righteous pontifications. To keep the Boston example alive, perhaps this sort of flawed process was best seen by the Thoreau-quoting, anti-Puritan trolley driver. (although he was too Thoreau-like to speak in all caps…)

If the bubble-bursting stories of our founding fathers annoy me, than the attempt at deifying the early formers of our government as some sort of holy saints of the promised land that is America absolutely drive me to the edge of --gasp! -- becoming a Democrat. (That lame little attempt at humor is supposed to indicate that this is a polite political conversation at this here blog site. You should know that I'm thinking lots of expletives in all caps and 18-point Helvetica in my head.)

Although I have literally dozens and dozens of examples of this sort of self-proclaimed prophetic behavior it's easier for me to just point to the 16-page publication coyly titled "Letter From 2012 in Obama's America" and released by Focus on the Family this past week. I first learned about this letter at my friend Earl's site and I could only stomach a brief skimming of the document. Why does this organization who has done much good service to the Church in its long history, feel the need to resort to poorly-written, fear-inducing tactics? (Didn't anyone learn anything from Y2K??)

This is a dumbing-down in the worst category because it plays on peoples’ fear of being wrong about God. Secondly, it perpetuates much of what is wrong in our education – or lack, thereof – today. I am reminded of a statement Gregory Wolfe made in the middle of a book review at the Image blog, "Robert Clark’s books contain what all those studies on the decline of reading claim that our culture is losing: sensitivity of perception, precise language, and the kind of rich interiority that evokes complex emotional responses to the human condition."
Instead of giving people opportunity for thoughtful, perceptive conversation and healthy debate this type of hyped-up and flattened-down rhetoric slams into the worst levels of the woundedness and fear that human beings carry just underneath the surface of their everyday lives. Respect calls people up toward a higher expectation for thought and action; therefore, it must be a disrespect that behaves as though people will only act a certain way if they are bullied into fear-motivated action.

When I do enter that voting booth on November 4 I will feel the same amount of gratitude and awe as I have every other time I’ve voted. (For my local friends, aren’t you glad we still have the booths with the curtains? I feel so important when I get to shove that lever to close the curtain, knowing that a whole line of people has to wait, watching the backs of my heels as I click down button after button.) In no way is my appreciation for my title as an American citizen lessened. Heck, just last week I even teared up at my son’s highschool chorale version of The National Anthem . But I am not mistaken that my truest alliegance does not belong to any political party or nation or, for that matter, para-church organization.

My allegiance belongs to the greatest leader of all time, who served the least of these and simultaneously expected all those he taught to think and act with both intelligence and love. I happen to think that we could trace back the behaviors of both blue collar and white collar dumbing-down to our own mangled attempts at being in relationship with this same Jesus.

Consider that it all started with the Governor-of-Governors walking with the common folk in the cool of the day. And no candidate could get a better front page headline than “Leader Cooks Breakfast on Beach for Local Fishermen”, but He opposed any attempts to bring Him populist fame. He wired a taste for this kind of servant-leadership into our human DNA. And then gave us His Spirit so that we could model that same leadership to those around us.

And who held their heads higher and made their actions bolder than those that Jesus interacted with in the most respectful and elevating ways? The same Ruler who shares His name with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and with Peter, James and John was one who raised the expectations for His followers. Is there a more elequent, sensitive, complex example of this than His Sermon on the Mount?

The One who held the keys to death and hell never resorted to scare tactics, but instead asked questions as nuanced as “Who do you say that I am?” Those in allegiance to this leader are able to follow with clear eyes and upright posture, not bent with fear and bitterness and inferiority complexes.

I know who I am voting for tomorrow. My conscience is clear that I am stewarding the gift that comes to me as a citizen of the United States. I am clear – even though perplexed – that when neither party seems to be getting the job done on many important issues, at the end of the day, one has to align oneself with one or two moral issues. I am clear that I am not voting as one who wants to get even with those who served up the rotten fruit of bad-politics-meets-bad-religion in my formative years. I am clear that I am not perpetuating that trend by meeting some unmet fantasy of backsliding in the church by masking as rebel behind the voting curtain. At the end of the day, I’m just going to click the button. And be thankful that my true allegiance is to a King and His Kingdom.

Epilogue:There have been a few sources of the kind of political conversation I found to be both substantive and elevating. I thought you might want to see for yourself:

  • Jeffrey Overstreet at The Looking Closer Journal invited his readers to try to persuade him toward their candidate here and here.
  • Donald Miller wrote with eloquence his support for Barack Obama here and here.
  • Just for fun, here are the two comments Brian and I left to Donald Miller's posts:
(to the first post)October 6, 2008 @ 7:20 pm
Hey, Don -So, my family is on a cable “fast” and we were sitting around bored tonight and decided to read your post together. (no slight intended there…we think you’re pretty great) We’ve got four kids - 10, 12, 14, 17 and four of us have read and been influenced positively by several of your books.We loved the post because it gave us a lot to talk about (and help us forget how much we’re missing ESPN).We’re a little stumped though. We started reading your post looking forward to hearing your thoughts about Obama beyond the two issues of gay marriage and abortion. In your writings you’ve encouraged us, as people who call ourselves Christians, to move beyond becoming two-issue political puppets; so we were kind of confused about why you chose those same two issues to support your vote for Obama? And, then, the cous de gras is that you support Obama because he is a man who professes faith in God.Is this some kind of version of “Punked”?? We’re just wondering because something seems a little fishy. Not neccesarily in your choice of candidate, but in your rhetoric.Can you enlighten us?
Since NY is never a swing state we won’t get to see you, but we’ll be checking back here at your site often. (or at least every time we’re jonesing for Comedy Central or the Cash Cab)Thanks,Brian, Tamara, Andrew, Alex, Kendra and Natalie Murphy

(to the second post)
Mr. Miller,
Excellent post, I will be voting for John McCain tomorrow, but I will be very supportive and respectful of President Obama if the apparently obvious happens and he is elected President. I too am tired of the under-thinking fear tactics of conservatives and Christians alike who are slandering a family because they do not share their political views.
I believe, however, that the nations political mood has shifted to a dangerous moderate position. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t mean dangerous in the sense of Democrats are evil and Obama is the anti-christ. I mean dangerous in the sense that statesmen are gone and politicians have taken their place. Dangerous in the way that everyone is encouraged to take a middle ground and reach across the aisle. Dangerous in the sense that issues are no longer different enough to be discussed, debates are just long campaign speeches, and platforms use words like change, hope, and fear rather than economy, security, and abortion.
I long for the days when men like Lyndon Johnson, a liberal, stood up to his own party and some southern evangelicals who opposed civil rights and ushered in legislation to change a culture of racism. The days when Ronald Reagan, a conservative, had the guts to stand a few feet from the Berlin Wall and order Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”. I long for the day when true statesman reemerge and moderation is achieved by thought and compromise rather than political positioning and the fear to stand for anything real.
I long for these days, but somewhere down deep in my soul I’m scared that they will never return.
Brian Murphy
  • This statement by John Piper articulates far more excellently much of what I'd want to say:

May God bless you. And may God bless America.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Transforming Culture Symposium #6: The Future

Transforming Culture Symposium: The Future
Plenary Session #6: Jeremy Begbie

The Question:
What is a vision of the evangelical Church in the year 2058?
Where was the evangelical Church with the arts back in 1958? What movements, trends, forces ought we to be aware of? What concerns face us? What are the hopes and possibilities that lie before us?

The Goal:
The sons of Issachar of 1 Chronicles 12:32 were men who understood the times, knew what to do, and then did it. Our desire here is to help pastors and artists become far-sighted Christians. We want to understand the spirit of the age, not become married to it. We want to be immersed in the culture but not trapped inside it. We want to be present to our contemporary times, careful students of history, and keen observers of the cultural currents—social, political, technological, commercial, religious and so on—that carry us, sometimes forcefully, into our common future.
Our desire is not only to learn from our past mistakes but to anticipate the brokennesses that lie ahead so that we can be clear-headed and nimble-footed in our gospel work. How can we as the church release our artists to make shalom-bearing art with the weighty wisdom of past generations and the welfare of future generations in mind?

The Speaker:
associate principle, Ridley Hall, Cambridge University; associate director, Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts

The Talk: (those reading this transcription need to imagine a warm English accent, as if Hugh Grant were a theologian; I've also tried to transcribe the effect of his playing the piano throughout his talk. This may feel cumbersome to read through, but I decided to leave the notes in for my favorite music lovers...they know who they are!)
It's a huge privilege to be at this rich, rich feast. I'm learning a vast amount. Whoever you are and wherever you've come from, you will not leave this place the same, I am sure and that is all to the good.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. For the first heaven and the first earth had passed away and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as thier God. They will be His peoples. And God Himself will be with them. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. Mourning and crying and pain will be no more. For the first things have passed away. Revelation 21
(imagine Jeremy Begbie spontaneously erupting into Prokofiev's Seventh Piano Sonata on the grand piano that had been placed center stage. )

This piece of music burst onto the Russian musical scene in 1943. A subversive piece in it's time. Prokofiev has just returned to Russia and he brings with him the edgy, modernist techniques he has learned in America and Europe -- driving pulse, cross-rhythms, daring dissonance. This is music for the future, he believes. Full of promise for his own country. Subversive, yes, but a hopeful subversion.

And that's what I think of when I think of David Taylor. My first encounter with David Taylor was in the library at Regent College. I was working quietly when I heard a commotion behind me. There was a red-haired student performing a perfect handstand in front of the reception desk. The resident subversive, I thought, every institution has one. The chronic exception. Just as well I don't have to meet him. When God scheduled our first appointment, I soon found, he was a subversive I could like. How could I resist his bouyant, infectious twinkle? He specialized in subversion, and still does. But a hopeful subversion.

That's what pastors and artists should specialize in, a hopeful subversion. David's asked me to look to the future. Outline a vision for the church and the arts for the year 2058. It's a pretty safe thing for me to do, actually, because I doubt even David will be around in 2058 to prove me wrong.

The commonest way Christians build a vision for the future is to think from the present to the future. Like all futurists, we survey our present culture, pick up the trends and currents that arch into the future, politics, arts, whatever. Then we tell ourselves we need to be riding those currents. We need to surf the waves that roll into post-post-modernity and enjoy the delicious thrill of being permanently relevant. Everlastingly cool.

Now, of course, there's truth there. But notice how often the movement is simply from the present and to the future. And think how easily it leads to grim resignation, The present culture's going this way. There's nothing the Church can do about it. In fact, there's nothing anybody can do about it. Go with the flow. Do what you can. Or if it's not that, it's triumphalism. Culture is like this, but we're going to take it for the Lord. And artists are going to be at the head of the liberating army.

This morning I want to suggest that the New Testament gives a very different feel. When these writers want a vision for the future, they don't move from the present to the future. They move from the future to the present. From a vision of what God will finally do, as in Revelation 21 when God will dwell with His people in the New Jerusalem. When the bereaved will dance and the victims laugh and the voiceless sing. A future that's been promised and guaranteed, previewed, indeed, in the raising of Jesus from the dead. And they seem to think, these writers, that future can start now. They're telling us their lives are being breathed into by the breath of God, reenergized by God's Spirit. So they can start to live the life of the future right now. The Holy Spirit brings the future into the present, churning and swirling the status quo. Subversive, yes, but a hopeful subversion.

If we want a vision for the arts and the Church for the next fifty years, I suggest this is where we begin. Not with our present, but with God's future interrupting, erupting, into our present through God's Spirit. Only then we ask, Well, what could the next fifty years be like?
What happens when the Spirit comes from the future? And what could this mean for the arts and our churches over the next half century?

Six points:

First, the Spirit unites the unlike. In Revelation 21 we hear of the new Jerusalem, the people of the new heaven, or should I say peoples as does this translation? Because the word, in fact, is plural in verse three. We're told that God will dwell with His peoples. John is picking up on the promise of Isaiah and others who said that many nations will stream to worship God. Ethnic multiplicity, the community of the unlike. Such is the work of the Spirit.

Why do I begin here? Because much Protestantism, in particular, has a craving for homogeneity, sameness. With a huge stress on the decision of the individual now embedded in a consumerist culture, we get the strange idea church is something I choose the way I choose a doctor or dentist, one that suits my needs and causes a minimum of pain. So, of course, we end up with the community not of the unlike, but the like -- the community I like.

And the arts get sucked into this. We find arty types creating their own churches where we can remind ourselves of how truly extraordinary we are. Or we make churches that revolve around music, usually one brand of it. Churches that cater to dance, or more likely, churches that don't. Churches that specialize in video art and churches that specialize in hideous art. A friend of mine describes evangelicals as the only Christians who can do bad taste with style.

Homogeneous zones of culture or psychological preference replicating the open consumerism that surrounds us. How does the Holy Spirit subvert all this? Supremely by throwing us alongside the stranger or, indeed, the enemy and taking us both to the foot of the Cross. If we grant unity anywhere else but the Cross, we are denying the Gospel.

What might that look like for us? Well, some of it is happening here. This is a symposium of the unlike, artists and pastors along with the great others who are unlike anyone. [during the symposium the name "the great others" was used to describe those who did not consider themselves as an "artist" or "pastor"]

Artists and pastors, of course, have much in common, thank God, but they tend to feel at ease with different langugages. To generalize wildly, pastors tend to feel most at home with the language of declarative statement. Jesus is God and man. God is one in three. Your pastor was probably trained in this kind of language more than than any other. Your average artist generally feels more at ease with the language of illusion and suggestion, light and shade, rhythm and sound. So put pastors and artists together and it can be like the pilgrims on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, mutual incomprehension and at its worst, open hostility. Jew, Gentile [imagine here a quick piano tune from Westside Story in reference to David Taylor's plenary session] Jets and Sharks.

But what happens at Pentecost, do you remember? The Spirit does not give them the same language, that's the point. Chapter 2, verse 6, 8 and 11 - three times we're told - the crowd heard the Galileean disciples in their own tongues. The Spirit translates so they can understand. The great sculptor Henry Moore was once quizzed by the vicar about the process of sculpting a madonna and child, Do you believe in the Church's dogma about the Virgin Mary and all that?he was asked. Moore replied, I don't know, but I think it is through art that we artists can come to understand your theology.

(Madonna and Child - Henry Moore, 1943)

Pastors, you need to recognize that your artists may well access the Gospel most readily through the grain of marble, through cadence and meter, light and shade, illusion and suggestion. And they will likely need these things in order to understand some of your langugage. Artists, you need to recognize that pastors often work in languages you may not find congenial, but which have proved necessary for the health of the Church. And they need these languages often to understand what you are doing.

During the last couple of days the Spirit has been busy subverting our love of homogeneity, uniting the unlike and translating so we can hear each other in our own tongues. And, from this an energy will be released we can hardly begin to imagine. Hopeful subversion.

Along with this, let's not forget that the arts themselves have built-in powers which subvert homogeneity. Because most of the arts, in one way or another, combine or juxtapose the unlike. The key process here is metaphor. I've written a bit about it, but just to dip into it very quickly. [he plays again] A tango in the left hand, how about a waltz in the right? And together. Interesting, a strange kind of energy emerges from that.

Now in the Prokofiev piece I played at the beginning is absolutely full of this, this combination of rhythms. The first two bars sounds like this [he plays] and that's it. What's going on there? The whole beast is built in seven beats to the bar. You can divide seven up in various ways. One way is 3+2+2 which is what we get in the first bar. [he plays first bar] Second, 2+3+2. [he plays] The left hand splits the seven into 2+2+3 [he plays] and the second bar in the left hand splits it differently again. So we've got an incompatablity between the right and the left. [he plays]
But it's more interesting than that, because if you take the left hand itself, has counter rhythms working against the natural rhythms. Take for instance, rests, so you get the left hand actually offbeat. [he plays] Also, you've got this strong beat all the way through. You can hear the great thrust that comes on the second main beat (or the fourth minor beat) of that left hand. So you have two subversions of the rhythm from the left hand alone. We have incompatability between hands and within the left hand. And that's only within the first four seconds. This is known as polyrhythm and an extraordinary energy is released through it not otherwise possible.

It's the kind of energy you'll hear on this CD from South Africa. A few years ago, two singing groups met in that country. The one a Renaissance choir from the University of Oxford, the other a Gospel choir from South Africa. They argued and talked and sang together. They recorded tracks from live worship in churches, studios and the open air and, eventually, they made a CD. In one track, African cross-rhythms meet the cross-rhythms of 1960's minimalist music to create an amazing polyrhythmic extravaganza. But just as striking is what we might call polystylism, that is many styles, or different styles together. In this track we hear a chant for peace written during the apartheid era over which the Oxford singers weave a Gregorian chant set in of the agnus dei, the last line being Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace. And this is, then, improvised freely. [he plays clip]

Now think of all the unlikes that we are hearing together there. A chant for peace from the political world along with a chant for peace from the liturgical world. A political chant given new gospel depth through the liturgical words and visa-versa. Two radically different musical traditions in conversation without loss of integrity. Two ethnic groups from radically different backgrounds with a history of violence. An energy is released through musical sound not otherwise possible. This, of course, is what the early church found when combined Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. Artist. Pastor.

My vision for next fifty years? Artists and pastors and the great others discovering the Spirit's unity of the unlike.

[Note: the remaining five points from Jeremy Begbie's talk as well as his encouraging conclusion will be available in the book being edited by David Taylor and published by Baker Books.]

My Thoughts:

My Creator -- our Creator -- inspires deep gratitude and awe from the innermost and truest places in me. This seems to be an evidence of deep calling to deep as the Holy Spirit breathed through the words, music and visual art that Mr. Begbie used in this talk. I am a different person after listening which also means I am held accountable to these learnings and exhortations.

May it be so.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

back to writing

(Waiting for our trolley in front of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.)
It's time.
One more symposium summary post to go. And it is a doozy... read every word.
But after that? It's time for me to write again.
I'm not sure where I'll start, but there's plenty buzzing around in my brain. And I mean plenty.

Possible titles include, but are not limited to:

Eugene Peterson, Teresa of Avila and My Grandmother: The Sublime in the Ordinary
A Childhood Dream Comes True (and it isn't the one about running my own circus...but it's close)
Mothering Teens: What No One Else is Saying (a real expose')

So cast your vote here, ladies and gentlemen! It's probably not the most important vote you'll get to cast in the next couple of weeks, but heck it might be one that actually makes a difference. And won't that just feel good?

(Austin arts pastor David Taylor swaps stories with the congregation at Union Center)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Transforming Culture Symposium #5: The Dangers

Transforming Culture Symposium: The Dangers
Plenary #5: David Taylor

(David Taylor and co-leader of Symposium, Larry Linenschmidt)

The Question:
What are the dangers of artistic activity?

How can the arts undermine the calling and mission of the Church? What are the possible excesses and misuses of the arts in a church setting; in the worship, in the discipleship, in evangelism and service?

The Goal:
Our desire is to help pastors anticipate potential dangers in their use of the arts. What works at the playhouse may not be suitable for the sanctuary. The experience of art can become a substitute for an experience of God. The stirring of emotions may simply be that: emotions, not a stirring towards transformation. There can be too much wow factor, or technological whiz-bang, or spectatorship instead of participation in the worship of God.
More art is not necessarily better. What is old can be deadening. What is new can be inappropriate and disruptive. What brings life to one congregation may bring death to another. All of this compels us to seek wisdom from above so that we may be as shrewd as serpants and innocent as doves in our shepherding of the artists among us.

The Speaker:
pastor, playwright, teacher; blogs at Diary of an Arts Pastor

The Talk: (in summary)

I have the task of talking about the dangers of artistic activities in the church. My asking this question is like asking what are the dangers of an automobile when I have just constructed a wheel. Most of the past twelve years have been spent in search for a positive role for art in the context of the church. When Augustine says instrumental music is for weak souls and Calvin pronounces that even if the image used contains nothing evil it still has no value for teaching. Welshman, R.S. Thomas calls protestantism “that adroit castrator of art” why stop to talk about the dangers?

It seems to me that there is so much positive, constructive work to be done here for us. Nevertheless, naming the dangers is part of our maturing. It's what it means for us to grow up. We have no business remaining naive or impulsively enthusiastic as if all that were needed was merely more art. Besides I have made plenty of mistakes of my own in the 12 years as a pastor to artists and it's time for me to share a few of them.

In the interest of putting childish ways behind us as much as possible, let me map out the landscape of dangers that we will encounter when we increase the amount, the intensity and the diversity of artistic activity in the context of the church When I speak of the church here, I mean the local, gathered body. Now the landscape I will draw has the following topographical features: it has one personal anecdote, it has two big ideas, it has six specific dangers and it has three qualities of healthy, artistic growth.

One more thing before I begin. What drives all of this? What drives all of this is a passion to see artists fully integrated persons, mature, alive. That is what wakes me up in the morning and that is what keeps me awake all through the day and the night -- to see artists alive with God. That is what drives all of this.

A personal anecdote:
In the fall of 2002 I wrote and produced a play that was staged at Hope Chapel. It was called Sarah's Children and my decision to stage the first three scenes on Sunday morning during corporate worship was stupid and very embarrassing.

The backdrop is this. As a pastor and as an artist, I had a question I wanted to work out in the context of Sunday morning,
Could a 45 minute work of theatre perform the work of a sermon? Could the native language of theatre affect a transformational encounter with the Word of God in a way parallel to the preaching of a sermon or the administering of the Eucharist?
In the fall of 2001 we put on a play representing the Gospel of Matthew as part of a teaching series. It ended our series in the Gospel of Matthew. It was received so well that people thought, "Let's do it again!" And so I, along with Brie Walker, wrote a play called Adam and Eve. It explored the moment immediately after Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden. It went so well, people said, "Let's do it again!" And so, foolishly I said, "Sure, let's do it again!"

Sarah's Children was concieved as an Italian family drama. A two-act play set in the time of the patriarchs. Six years later, my conclusion is this: I got art wrong and I got church wrong. I foolishly rushed the script, put to stage something that was not ready to be seen. I immaturely decided to perform only three scenes on Sunday morning. The play ended abruptly on a very depressing note about the sexual tension between Abraham, Sarah and Hagar. [Tami's note: you had to be at the symposium to hear the empathetic laughter at this last statement!]
My conclusion was this:
what I had created and decided to do did not serve the purposes for which the people had gathered on Sunday morning. There are experiments worth doing and this was not one of them. You would do right to pity the leadership of Hope Chapel.
The Big Idea is this: (and here I take the risk of dabbling in just a little bit of philosophy).
Let me offer a model that has helped me make sense of what is a danger and what just looks like a danger when it comes to artistic activity in the context of the church. The model is this: There are super-ordinate Truths and there are sub-ordinate truths.

Super-ordinate Truths include essential things we believe about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Things we believe about what it means to be human. About what it means to be the Church, and, yes, what we believe about art. I call them this because they are truths that fundamentally hold the universe together and make human well-being possible.

Sub-ordinate truths just look like real dangers, but, in fact, are cultural skins in which we live out the big-T Truths. Too often, as Christians, we confuse one for another and that's where a lot of our headaches about artistic activity in the church actually derive.
Let me illustrate: God made 12 tribes Israel. They were all sons of Abraham and they were all commanded to obey the Law of Moses. That's what they had in common. But they were very different siblings, creatures, cultures. And God quite liked it that way.
Now God made not just human nature, but physical nature to express itself in many ways. He made mountains, plains, tundras, tropics, arctics, savannahs, and marine biospheres all made from the same stuff of the earth, but very different in their ecological personalities. but, for today, let me stick with the desert and the jungle. Let us call them - the desert, the Jets and the jungle, Sharks. For those of you who do not know who the Jets and the Sharks are -- they are the Westside Story.

Now the Jets dance in a certain way -- they high-kick and pirouette onto the sidewalk. They twirl and hop with the basketball. They drink sodas and say things like, "Let's go, Daddy-O" and "crackerjack". Now the Sharks, they glide and they strut. Their movements are suave. Their gestures flair like flamenco. They snap their hips, sassy with salsa. They say things like, "Ay, Caromba" and "Vamos, muchachos".

Now the Jets and the Sharks -- the white American and the brown Puerto Rican, the desert tribe and the jungle tribe -- [represent] two very different church cultures. They don't get each other very often. You see, the desert tribe likes to sing Gregorian chants and serene hymns. The jungle tribe cranks out complicated polyphonic chorales. The shakers and the praise dancers make their moves over and against the quiet, self-composed steps of the monks. The gregarious Brazilian pentecostals act out their effusive Easter dramas under the windows of the scholarly, minimalist German Lutherans.

They say to each other things like,
Your movie has profanity.”
Your movie has fake characters.”
"Your physical movements are distracting to true worship of God."
"Your movements deny the Incarnation."
"Your visual art is embarrassingly exessive."
"Yours is monumentally simplistic."

And the shouting rings down through the generations.

My point is this: the Jets and the Sharks, the desert tribe and the jungle tribe, often times it looks like what is being done is dangerous. And sometimes, you know, it is. When they get the super-ordinate Truths wrong. The Truths about who God is. About what it means to be a human. About the Church. About art.

But, perhaps there are times when it looks and feels dangerous, but all that's really happening is your culture is clashing against the other culture while you both faithfully embody and enact the gospel act. So my brief, pastoral exhortation before I go on to the main substance of this talk is this, ,blockquote>May we exercise caution when we watch another church’s artistic experiences and experiments and say, “Surely your art does not genuinely lead to a true knowledge of God. “ because maybe what is really going on is a cultural tension.

[Note: the remaining points from David Taylor's talk as well as his encouraging conclusion will be available in the book that he is editing and having published by Baker Books.]
My Thoughts:
What can I say? If you attend Union Center with me, you were able to hear David Taylor speak this past Sunday. His talk is posted here.

There are deep currents of truth lying under each of these points. I appreciate Taylor's ability to craft a talk that is thorough enough to influence a major point -- in this case the dangers of art in the context of church -- while at the same time draw a listener (or reader) into the supporting points; to investigate the intriguing layers supporting each of his major points.

For example, I take to heart David's exhortation to handle this large and beautiful gift of art with full dependence on the character of God. To understand that, unless God's character is being formed in me during this pursuit, I am likely to walk into one or more dangerous traps. By naming the traps, Taylor has given me a heads-up. And, now that I know, I am accountable. This is a kindness offered by a Christian brother.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Art Show on Main 2008

Andy Palmer's work during opening reception this past Saturday

It was an exciting opening event for this year's Art Show on Main at Union Center. We'd made some pretty significant changes to the previous two years and, for the most part, I think the changes paid off.

By inviting artists from the Greater Binghamton art community, we were able to introduce our church family to some of the good work happening outside our four walls. I felt so pleased to be part of a church family who invited these artists in and were willing to learn from their experience and, even, take the risk of receiving critique from them on their own work.

Yes, I wish that more of our artists had taken advantage of this opportunity. But nothing prepared me for the feeling of fulfillment I experienced watching those who did attend the event stand in the middle of a room buzzing with conversation and ideas and Miles Davis' Autumn Leaves and then watching them leave the event feeling affirmed and encouraged and stretched toward greater levels of skill in their craft. Nothing prepared me for the sense of rest and enjoyment I experienced sitting in the back of our sanctuary listening to aspiring songwriters sing lyrics they wrote to melodies they crafted to ask the question, "Is it any good?". I was just hiding out in the back of the room and my stomach was lurching.

And nothing prepared me for the gratitude that our guests expressed. All of them work more than one job, some also juggle family needs, most are still investing in their education -- and yet, the flexibility and graciousness they exhibited toward me and our church family was truly beautiful.

We have 27 new pieces selected by the jury to add to the exhibit and several performances of original music and spoken word to enjoy in our closing event Coffeehouse on Main. I look forward to being unprepared for many more beautiful moments then.

(Thankfully I was a little bit prepared for the media should they choose to attend. We were pleased to be featured on the 11:00 news on channel 12 -- you can find the transcript here.)

prepping for the panel discussion
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