Wednesday, March 31, 2010

IAM Reader's Guild review: The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Connor

My blog reviews of the IAM Reader's Guild gatherings in 2010.  (see previous Readers Guild posts here)

March 2010: The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Connor
Endicott, NY chapter of the IAM Readers Guild

“Last fall I received a letter from a student who said she would be ‘graciously appreciative’ if I would tell her ‘just what enlightenment’ I expected her to get from each of my stories…I wrote her back to forget the enlightenment and just try to enjoy them.”
 -- Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners

Mid-way through our discussion of O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away, I was reminded of this surprisingly blithe statement made by the revered storyteller.  Really?  Just enjoy the stories and skip the quest for enlightenment?  If I had the chance to quip back, I’d be tempted to say “Enjoy what, Ms. O’Connor?” 

As a group, the Endicott, NY Readers Guild agreed that the novel was easy-to-read in the sense that the plot kept moving forward – even as it flashed backward -- taking us with it without too much distraction.  We cared about what happened next – all the way to the last heartbreaking page.  But enjoy?  Like anything else any of us had read by this author, The Violent is littered with tragedy upon tragedy: abandonment, abuse, acridity. 

This is not to say, however, that we all shared the same views on the “action of grace in territory held largely by the devil”, O’Connor’s stated primary subject in her writing. A couple of us saw it in the conviction of the elder Tarwater’s dogged conviction to live life as a prophet and to save all who came under his care, come hell or high water.  I confess that this is a perspective that never even occurred to me the first time I read the book last year.  Only the discipline of re-reading the story in community helped me to understand a different way of seeing O’Connor’s iconically outrageous characters.  (Studying the characteristics of Southern Gothic literature at some point in my life might also have been helpful in this regard!)

One of our readers opted out of the evening, letting me know that the story “depressed her too much.”  I understood where she was coming from.  Expecting more of the same from the group discussion, I tried to do my homework.  For the sake of full disclosure, I must confess that O’Connor’s work frustrates me. The writing is brilliant, sharp, wickedly witty.  For example, my favorite character description, possibly of all time, is written by this author: "His grandfather had been a ... circuit preacher, a waspish old man who had ridden over three counties with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger."  (from Wise Blood) But, in the totality of her writing, there seems no light, no grace, no softness; therefore, in my feeble understanding, no redemption.  This seems to conflict with my lofty expectations for a writer committed to her faith, as Flannery O’Connor persuasively asserts.  A conflict not unlike another well-known name in the fields of art and faith.

Hoping to gain insight with what I assumed to be a stupendously simplistic error in my thinking, I emailed several of my brainy friends with this question: 
“I completely understand (and agree with) the viewpoint the assessment that the body of work by Thomas Kinkade does not tell the truth because he wishes only to paint Eden and never paint the Fall. This excludes themes not only of depravity and fallenness, but also -- and, perhaps, worse -- themes of grace and redemption…. What I'm struggling with is that it feels to me that Flannery O'Connor's body of work does the same thing but from the opposite direction.  I’m stumped.”

Once again I was reminded of the value of reading in community.  This is the way we sharpen ourselves and each other in the way we view the world around us.

Among several helpful replies, this one from Mako Fujimura:

A good comparison to bring these two diametrically opposed expressions!

Another angle to look at it is to see what Kinkade does (successfully) as creating a market surrounding his art, i.e., he is driven to create an entrepreneurial business around his art, and that is how he defines his success (not whether his art is good and enduring or not; his art is defined by how many people buy them).  I am not saying that marketing art is bad; but such the market driven work will be limited by the demands of people's tastes, rather than the artist's vision.  Flannery did not care at all about the market, and she saw her writings in the stream of art/theology that stems back to Augustine, Aquinas, Dante and Shakespeare.  She wrestled with not just art, but life itself; knowing that she will have a short life with her lupus condition. So her vision is a millennium vision, whereas Kinkade's vision is 5-10 years (at most).  They define art and success differently.  Kinkade paints (or have his assistants paint) to make money; O'Connor wrote to face death head on, and her writings, in my opinion, have the aroma of the Resurrection.

O'Connor's work is hard hitting and violent; it does provoke and even transgress against our notion of what religion is.  In many ways, she is merely pointing out the violence that is submerged in culture, denied by religion: and by doing so she points to grace, as you say, much more powerfully than Kinkade's paintings.

Perhaps, like Ms. O’Connor’s characters, Rayber and Tarwater, it’s all a matter of knowing how to deal with our passions.  In this light, we found ourselves uncomfortably challenged by the contrast of stark reason and insatiable passion.  Not unlike the camel-hair-clad, locust-eating prophet, crying out in the wilderness for the violent to bear it away.  What is this story we each are walking around in, with so much numb assent?  Not Flannery O’Connor.  Nor us either, if we allow ourselves to enjoy her work.

Monday Mixtape [on Wednesday!]

Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon

Here's an excerpt for the review I wrote for the IAM Readers' Guild blog:

If a poem were picked to describe Robert Farrar Capon’s intentions for writing this book, it should be Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s verse:

“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit around and pluck blackberries.”

The title itself is not misleading – The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection – speaks plainly its intention to take us beyond the pantry shelves and cupboards full of cookbooks, promising tasty dinners and happy times.  Still, our group here in Endicott, NY was a little caught off guard, expecting recipes to inspire us as much as words and getting, instead, a complex plainness (“those who do not find me a snob will call me a boor”, p. 9) in the author’s approach to food, life and spirituality.  What we thought would be an evening of recipe sampling became instead a collective scratching of the head – was it that we were intimidated by the old-timey baking methods or just not inspired enough to take the time?

Substitute onions for blackberries. Add the verb chopping for plucking and the poet has captured the entirety of Capon’s second chapter in one free-from verse.  Capon entreats us to pay attention to the lowly root vegetable:  “You think perhaps that it is a brownish yellow vegetable, basically spherical in shape, composed of fundamentally similar layers. All such prejudices should be abandoned. It is what it is, and your work here is to find it out.”

 How could any one of us approach this ordinary task with blasphemous, willy-nilly chopping methods ever again?  We’ve seen too much to go back.  Are we really willing, though, to take the time and creative energy to approach lowly food items as an act of worship, as the author almost demands?  We’ve been ruined for the ordinary.  And we left money at the bookseller for the privilege.
read the rest here...

  • Once again, Erin's picks at Design for Mankind tickle my fancy.  Just picturing these hot-tub recliners in my tea cup makes me giggle!
Film & Television:
  • We watched The Fantastic Mr. Fox on DVD.  It's one of my favorites from last year.  If you haven't watched it yet, well...your life is lacking some lovely bits of whimsy and delight.  And that's all I have to say about that!
  • Last week I raved about Life -- the Discovery Channel's follow up series on Planet Earth. I'm not a professional at this whole writing for review genre, so here's a more eloquent summary on the show from someone who is just that.  Read her words; they're really good.
  • Yet another throw-back to last week's post:  my friend Brian Moss and his quest to get enough pledges from patrons by March 31 in order to record his next album, Prayerbook Project, no. 2.  Here's an update on his progress.  While you're there, please consider adding your own pledge to the total.  This is an excellent opportunity to be part of bringing new melodies to the Psalms accessible to church ministries and homes that are not subject to industry charts or retail pricing or the short-attention-span of the radio airwaves.  What I'm trying to say, is that it's a worthy cause and I think you should do it.  How's that for full disclosure??

Portrait of You as the Good Samaritan 
Jim B. Janknegt

I was first introduced to the work of Jim Janknegt through the Hope Chapel and Diary of an Arts Pastor blogs. I then became more familiar with his work when I discovered several on image collection CDs I purchased through CIVA.  I am fascinated with  Janknegt's technique and contemporary expressions of ancient story.  Looking at one of his paintings is like looking through the I Spy books I used to read to my children -- there's always some new detail to discover.  Someday, I would like to own one of this artist's paintings.


March was full of rich and various opportunities to experience beauty and laughter and fun and community through the arts  -- everything from a poetry reading with the 81-year-old whippersnapper, Luci Shaw to the low-down blues show with friends at the Hideout.  From enjoying the gravity-defying stunts of PUSH physical theatre to the pretension-defying music of The Welcome Wagon and Miriam Jones.  There was also that lovely refuge of a weekend with Jason Harrod and eighty of our closest friends.

As my family and church community go into the final days of this Holy Week, we look forward to opportunities for our senses and memories and beliefs and practices to be provoked through a theologically and biblically-informed and community-shaped use of the arts - music, installation, theatre, and dance.  Above all, may we grow deeper as artists into the image of our Savior who come, not to be served, but to serve.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Renewing the Liturgy: a Sunday review

To be honest, this idea of a weekly look at our services together at Union Center Christian Church makes me quite nervous.  I've kind of lost my innocence in browsing worship websites saying one thing -- We're here to proclaim the gospel of Christ for this generation! (or, some such) -- but revealing another -- We're here to proclaim our own name for this generation of church consumers!  [shudder, shudder, shudder]

At the same time, our Worship & Arts ministry is striving toward a deeper understanding of worship in all of its biblical, theological, global, historical and missional glories.  Toward a more mature discipline in an artistically-rich, contextually-relevant and relationally-driven community.  Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us!

With all that being said, it would seem a weekly discussion of our corporate practice of worship might be a helpful tool toward those lofty, God-dependent goals.  That is the spirit in which I present this new weekly post.  It is the spirit in which I pray it is both presented and received.

Sunday, March 28, 2010 -- Palm Sunday
The Gathering:  The corporate conversation between God and his children is begun. God’s children are entering his presence and the dialogue begins.
  • Pre-service:  team leads the song Majestic as a preparation for worship celebration. (Lincoln Brewster)
  • Call to Worship:  A prayer for Palm Sunday and a responsive reading from Philippians 2:6-11 reminding us that "God exalted Him above every name" led by service host (a pastor). (Prayer taken from this prayer journey book that Union Center used for the past 40 days; responsive reading adapted from The Open Sourcebook).
  • Congregational song: Let God Arise (Ed Cash, Jesse Reeves, & Chris Tomlin)
  • Congregational song:  Ancient of Days, a slightly-updated arrangement that our team came up with for one of our church's "old favorites" (Jamie Harville and Gary Sadler)
  • Turn and Greet One Another; Offering; "Life at the Center":  led by Brian, our service host,  for the purpose of congregational responses of worship in community and giving.  The Life at the Center announcement featured Good Friday services.  The service host concluded this portion of the service by introducing a section of Hebrew praise songs in order to celebrate both Palm Sunday and our guest speaker, a professor of Hebrew from the local Bible college.  To begin this portion of the service, the service host introduced us to a children's choir.
The Renewal:  As worshipers come into the presence of a holy God, they acknowledge their sinfulness and seek forgiveness and renewal in God’s grace.
  • Hinei Ma Tov: special sung by a children's choir, translated to mean "Behold how good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity" from Psalm 133. And -- they lit up the place with their joy and excellent singing!

  • Hebrew worship song medley:  Make a Joyful Noise (Terry Butler), Come Clap Your Hands (former Union Center member, John Wessells) and Thou Art A Shield (a wonderful worship song taken from Psalm 3, but -- sadly -- I do not know who wrote it!)
  • Corporate Prayer:  Pastor John led us in a prayerful response to all the truths we'd celebrated in song and then in a time of prayer for our city upon the one-year anniversary of the tragic shootings at the American Civic Association in Binghamton.  This time included a moment of silent prayer.
The Word:
  • Four Passovers and a Look Ahead: taught by Dr. George Snyder, professor of Hebrew at Davis College in Johnson City.  This was an excellent overview of the biblical and religious history for the Jewish celebration of Passover and then a look at the ways Jesus changed the tradition during the Last Supper as a way to announce the Kingdom of God that he brought into being through his death, burial and resurrection.  This included a reminder that our place in the story is like that of Egypt's place in the first Passover.  We are on the outside with no blood for our "doorposts" except for the blood of Jesus that God sacrificed for us.  We seek to remember these things and rehearse them with our children in order to celebrate God's rescue of us in each generation.
The Response to the Word:  God’s Word always calls for a response on the part of those who hear. This section provides opportunities for responses of faith, thanksgiving, and obedience.
  • Responsive reading of the Word:  This was supposed to have been a responsive reading from Psalm 107:1-3, 116, led by our senior pastor.  In our attempts at a five-fold pattern of worship, this time of response to the Word is what we have the most difficulty saving time to do well.  This was especially true on a day with a guest speaker and two other pastors leading portions of the service.  
  • Congregational Song:  What the Lord Has Done In Me (Reuben Morgan).  This was our big opportunity to sing the HOSANNAS for Palm Sunday.  Unfortunately, it was completely cut out of first service and severely shortened for second service.
The Sending:  The corporate conversation between God and his people comes to an end, and elements are provided by which we take leave of each other. The dialogue ends and we go out as a people who have been blessed to be a blessing.
  • Benediction
This post is part of a blogging carnival at The Worship

Liturgy of a Laity Lodge retreat [the renewal]

I bind this today to me forever
By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation;
His baptism in Jordan river,
His death on Cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spic├Ęd tomb,
His riding up the heavenly way,
His coming at the day of doom
I bind unto myself today.
(St. Patrick's Breastplate)

In order to get to the Laity LodgeI drove into the Frio River in a baptism that, I'm guessing, hundreds, if not thousands, of retreat participants have experienced before me. If you want your time reading this post to be a multi-media experience, I've included some of my favorite "water" songs for your listening pleasure.

When it came time to actually leave home for this long-awaited retreat I discovered much anxiety rising to the surface of me. Some of it, I quickly realized, was just plain ol' separation anxiety. But there was more than that, too. Several weeks prior to driving through this river, David Taylor had emailed an offer for the retreat leaders to pray specifically over those of us attending, if we'd only send them our requests. I didn't know my request until a few days before departure: I want to be able to be fully present -- not self-conscious of my lack of credentials or lack of intelligence or lack of experience. In truth, I shared through the gmail confessional: I feel like a little kid sitting at the big kids' table.  

That "table" motif showed up time and again throughout the retreat -- in both affirming and painful ways.  I will get to that story in a follow-up post.  Before that, though, I want to share with you a sentence that David spoke into my voice mailbox.  Words that reminded me of my truest identity in which all my other known selves are founded. He said these words: You are not at the little kids' table, you are at the common table.  You have every right to be at this table.  He also affirmed me in some specific ways but added the sentence that were like that of a deep calling to deep: Tell Jesus when you are having these thoughts and He will help you.

I did, in fact, find a gracious welcome to the common table from the group of fearless, faithful ministers and artists at this retreat. Still, I know for certain that my Father most wanted me to hear this gentle reminder of His role in offering me help and grace and comfort and correction through the work of His Son, the Christ, the Savior of all mankind and, not least of all, me.  My identity is securely placed in His work on the Cross and is reminded to me through the ministry of His Spirit in prayer and through the community of saints surrounding me.  

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

Entering the Laity Lodge grounds, I turned off my cell phone (there was no coverage anyway).  I had left my laptop at home.  I was essentially disconnected from any comforts of identity from my normal, every day life.  I entered into the murky pool of connection with a group of people I only knew as a list of names spit out in a word document the retreat staff had mailed to me ahead of time.  Entering into that unknown, frankly, terrified me more than driving through the waters of the Frio River and not being able to see to the bottom.  I could only trust that someone knew I'd be coming and that my safety mattered to them!

This was a good exercise to initiate my fearful heart.  I did not know how these days would turn out, how lonely, how overwhelmed, how vulnerable or how annoyed or how exhausted or how marginalized I might feel.  But I trusted two things: those who had loved Jesus and gone before me and , more than any other, the Jesus who knows me and my trials better than I do, myself.  I am identified in the death, burial, resurrection, ascension and authority of this Christ.  

It was good to remember.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Liturgy of a Laity Lodge retreat [the gathering]

On March 4, I flew out of Binghamton in the dark, paused in Detroit, spent three hours making a new friend in Row 11, seat B from Detroit to San Antonio, forgot to be tough with a stranger on his way to a big-game hunting expedition and who took advantage of my gullibility in the San Antonio baggage claim, stood in line for at least a half an hour at the Enterprise counter and, blinking like a mole walking into daylight, rolled my bags  into the Texas spring. Thankfully the kind shuttle bus driver helped me lift my suitcase; I had worried more about that one task with my still-healing surgery incisions than any other part of this trip.  (Well, that and missing my sweet family.)  

With that part of the trip over, I began to realize the full delight of my circumstances:  I was alone with the Texas sky, a brand-spankin'-new Hyundai Santa Fe and a two-hour drive to Laity Lodge.  Did I mention that the sun was shining?  And it was seventy-five degrees?  First things first before studying a map: digging through my luggage for the pair of flip-flops I'd thrown into the suitcase with great hope and faith before leaving home.

There is no question: I am wired for road trips.  Part of me gets all dingy and shriveled up when I go too long without one.  Same thing happens when I don't get some quality time to myself.  Plus when I don't see or feel the sunshine for too long.  I used to be a sales trainer and traveled all over nine Northeastern states for about half the days of every month.  That was a bit much, but every Spring I got to travel somewhere balmy.  That never got old.  

I honestly didn't have much desire to explore Texas.  I guess I've bought into a whole bunch of big-haired, gun-in-the-back-window-of-the-pickup caricatures.  I saw a few of both, but what caught me by surprise was the beauty of the place.  Well, once I got out of the strip-mall, big-box-store sections and hit Highway 10 into the hill country.  I'm not sure what it would have looked like in the autumn or summer, but in the scraggly branch Springtime, I was captivated. And maybe it's because the Readers Guild is reading The Violent Bear It Away this month, but I found myself thinking as I drove through the jagged-edged allure:  If Flannery O'Connor was a place, she would be Texas' hill country.  

Well, I went between thinking that thought and also wanting to burst out singing Desperado.

I've learned something about myself in my reaction to various contexts:  I'm less turned off by different styles and more turned off by falsities.  In that light, if I'd switched on the radio and heard Lady Gaga, I might have turned around and gone home.  

I love places that know themselves well.  That's the vibe I got driving up Highway 10. The hill country is comfortable in its own skin.  In hindsight, this couldn't have been a more appropriate call to worship for the retreat.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Monday Mixtape

i made you a mix tape of all my favorites this week!


For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts by W. David O. Taylor
I know I mentioned this once already, but now I've had a chance to read it.  You can buy it here at Baker Books or here at Amazon.  It doesn't matter where you click, just go buy it.  Even for the cool artwork that accompanies each chapter, it's worth it, but it's much more than that.  The book is ten chapters written by ten accomplished advocates for art in the church.  Advocates for artwork that is more than a sermon illustration or an effort in following trends, but art that is forming and being formed by whole and healthy persons.  So, if you are an artist or a pastor or a church-goer or an ex-church-goer or a patron or just someone who likes to read well-written non-fiction - go buy the book.

The Hidden art of Homemaking. Ideas for Creating Beauty in Everyday Life by Edith Schaeffer

This is a re-read for me.  It's been years, though, and I finally purchased my very own copy.  I think I'll wrap this book and give it my daughters and daughters-in-law when my children form their own households.  It's a classic book that is more culturally relevant than anything on the new title shelves today.  In fact, I think it's the fact that it is an older book that makes me trust it even more.  The ideas Mrs. Schaeffer shares are timeless.  She was green before green was a buzzword.  She was handmade before handmade was a buzzword.  She was organic before organic was a buzzword.  You get the picture.  Even more than that, her world view of Christians as stewards of earth and home and family and self is straightforward, yet eloquent.   

She also reminds me -- in several important ways -- of my mother.  And my grandmothers.  I hope my own children will be able to say the same some day.

  • Eight Questions about the Arts and Faith Top 100 Films at Image Journal:  I know the Oscars have come and gone, but this post by Jeffrey Overstreet is a good read anytime. (I especially like question #'s 5 &6!) My husband and I regularly fill our Netflix queue from lists like this. 
      Just want the list? Go here.

  • The Welcome Wagon and Miriam Jones:  I met all these musicians at Laity Lodge a few weekends ago.  I'm still working on that post and will say more -- lots and lots more!  In the meantime, do yourself a favor and check out the music on their websites.  Good, good stuff.
  • I want to put a plug in for my friend, Brian Moss.  I've talked about him several times here and have a deep respect for the work he is doing in crafting new melodies for the Psalms.  His next project is supposed to go to the studio in May, but only with the help of patrons.  This album is a By/For project -- which means that all the music -- audio and charts will be available for free, licensed under Creative Commons.  This is work being done by the church, for the church.  Brian needs about $1,600 more pledged toward the project by March 31.  You can patron this work for as small an amount as $20 which includes a CD of the completed album.  In essence, you'd be pre-ordering the album.  $1,000 gets you a free concert -- so think big!  You can hear all the info from Brian himself at YouTube or at his blog.

The sweet photo of Brian performing at Art Show on Main last fall. 
(taken by Hope Spicer)

Film & Television:
I don't have time to write much about these tonight, but maybe you trust me enough to just take my word on these suggestions?

  • Life on the Discovery Channelthe sequel to Planet Earth, Sunday nights on the Discovery Channel.  Watch it. Tape it and watch it again. Pre-order it on DVD. It's A.MAZ.ING!!  I'll never think of a chameleon's tongue or a stalk-fly's eyes or a flying fish's wings in the same way again.  Watching this, like its prequel, is an experience in worship.
  • Precious: Based on the novel Push by Sapphire (2009):  Hard, hard, hard to watch, but totally worth it.  About half-way through I told Brian and Andrew:  I don't think I can watch any more of this. And Brian said: I think we need to watch this.
  • Bright Star:  Total film and romance gorgeousness.  We watch the couple -- poet, John Keats and his love, Fanny Brawne --  following both deep passion and strong conscience in the midst of heart-wrenching circumstances.  The story and the integrity of the main characters reminded me of the deeply- feminine courage and allure of Jane Eyre.

Visual Art:

My Secret Self / At Rest

  • A few weeks ago, my artist-friend, Phaedra, featured work by Olivia Jeffries in a post of work that was inspiring her.  I totally fell for this woman's work.  In some ways, it affects me much like Phaedra's own drawings. This particular piece charmed me. On many days, it could be a self-portrait of my heart.
  • Shannon Newby:  Another artist I met at the retreat and hope to talk about  more in the yet-to-be-written missive on my time there.  In the meantime, check out her work on her site.  Then you'll feel like you are old friends when I talk about her here.  Plus, she is the first person since, I think my fourth-grade teacher, who got me to actually try to make a piece of (gasp!) ART! And it came out half-decent, so that's really saying me.


In anticipation of the promised retreat post -- the first shot I took during my road trip from San Antonio to Laity Lodge.  This is the rest stop that I had intended to explore for photos of the hill country.  I only got as far as this sign.

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