pride and fear and the art in between

I hang out with a lot of “artistic types” on a fairly regular basis, both in collaboration on projects and in managing the day-to-day administrative tasks that so many of our type find difficult or distracting. I would even call myself an artistic type pretty readily. I’m a fan of both fences and freedom (in fact, I think the former actually engenders the latter). I’m organized, but in a very disorganized fashion. I can focus fully on one thing for a long amount of time, yet enjoy a high level of distractibility most of the rest of my life. I value fantasy, symbolism, and imagination because they illuminate reality and truth, or maybe just because they’re tasty.

And I struggle with pride and fear on a daily basis.

To me, these are the besetting sins of the artist, and the most restricting sins when it comes to creating.

How We Ought to Think

Pride and fear are both, in essence, thinking of ourselves as something we are not. Necessarily, this means that we are thinking of God as something He is not, as well as everyone around us. Paul is doubtless describing pride in Romans 12:3 when he says the following:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

The remedy for pride here is, surprisingly, not to think of ourselves as less than we are; in fact, Paul spends a good portion of Romans talking about how we are to believe our status as a new people, made alive and free in and through Christ. It is belief in a higher truth that overcomes the old self, and here it is such belief that overcomes pride – and, indeed, fear. Here we are exhorted to think of ourselves rightly, faithfully, as God thinks of us: with sober judgment.

The Desire to Create

I’ve heard it said that the difference between artists and non-artists is that the latter look at art and say, “I could make that,” and the former actually make it.

As artists we somehow have the audacious belief that, amazingly, we are capable of creating art. Call it courage, call it idiocy, call it desire – we have found that creation is possible and even, dare I say it, fulfilling; so we keep drawing, we keep composing, we keep dancing or writing or acting or filming.

Artistic types are naturally gifted with an above-average measure of this desire. Unfortunately, we’ve also been “gifted” with a sin nature that degrades and twists this natural creative tendency.

The Twist

Pride twists our God-given tendency to create in many ways, like when we attempt to lift our art – and therefore ourselves – to the center of attention, so that we may be worshipped as Grand Artiste in the manner we desire. And I don’t think the terminology here is too dramatic. Pride is about being worshipped, and we as creators have to continually remember that we’re not capitalized by comparison to the Creator.

But it is also fear that twists us, because it is fear that whispers to us that we are less than – that we are so broken that we cannot be healed, that our art is worthless, that we are worthless, and that we’ll never get better. These are lies from the pit of hell, but the rebuttal to them is not confidence in our art or ourselves. It is confidence in Christ as Redeemer, Savior, Creator – in the One who can make us and the work of our hands, minds, feet, and mouths useful, beautiful, and true.

The Artist and Sober Judgment

The place we are to live is one of faith, confidence, courage, and resolve – these interrelated ideas are good and true when they rest on Someone outside of ourselves. To think of ourselves with sober judgment, we are believing 1) that we are created in God’s image, 2) that we have been gifted with creative abilities, and 3) that those abilities can and more often than not should be used faithfully.

Part of this sober judgment is accepting that we will never arrive at some perceived plateau of excellence. The product we create is only punctuation, and no one wants to read a book full of nothing but commas and periods and semicolons. The magic lies in the words and sentences – the process, the journey of creation, failure, redemption, tension, and re-creation, always further up and further in.

Within that process is our hope – that each day Christ can and does renew and refresh His distractible, forgetful, disorganized, prideful, fearful children for the work He has for us, and He will continue to do so.

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the difficulty of ideas

The single smallest creative act is to have an idea.

The nature of being a person includes this inescapable thing that everyone experiences: at a base level, we all imagine things that aren’t in existence yet.  We look ahead to a future we wish we had.  We play back conversations in our heads with better, wittier responses.  We read stories and our brains and hearts fill in myriads of details around the main characters, things that were never said but fit, so perfectly, into our mind’s eye of the protagonist.  We imagine the smell and taste and texture of bacon.  Because what else would you imagine?

The generative nature of all of our minds is surprising and wonderful and stunning all at once.  But the simple existential fact is that we all have ideas, good, bad, smart, stupid, define them as you will.

And that’s a serious problem, at least in my experience.

For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to narrow down the difficulty with ideas to two areas: large and small community experiences.

I work for a good-sized non-profit, with a lot of wonderful idea-makers in it.  I have friends in middle management who have a sharp understanding of what makes our company tick, and their ideas for improvement and optimization are nothing short of brilliant.  But most of those ideas won’t move beyond the idea phase to the actuality.

First, they’re telling me their ideas.  And regardless of how excited I am about them, if those ideas don’t trickle upward (a phenomenon that is remarkably hard to find, due to a thing called gravity) there is little to no chance that they will actually become reality.

Second, all my other middle management friends have great ideas too.  Unless there’s some kind of vetting process for ideas which would objectively push the best ones to the top, what usually happens is that the loudest idea-mongers get their ideas put into play.

Finally, little phenomena like pride, fear, and jealousy (let’s save time and call these things sin) get in the way of the best ideas.  These aren’t isolated to the people on high receiving the ideas, by any means.  In other words, while ideas in this circumstance can be tested thoroughly, the likelihood of activation is low.

The opposite environment (not surprisingly) breeds problems too.

Say I have an idea, but no accountability or community to test it in.  Or maybe I have a community, but I’ve been gifted with an obnoxious personality that runs over anyone in my way.

In this scenario, the potential for my idea to be terrible is statistically through the roof, because it can’t be tested. Given the limits of individual human knowledge, the likelihood of personal risk and/or forming a cult are high.  My idea may have merit, but without checks and balances I am, more than likely, toast.  Or worse, I put everyone I know in the toaster with me.

(A caveat: It can’t be discounted that certain ideas won’t actually affect a ton of people in a detrimental way.  Maybe I want to say something true about the nature of penguins. If I were to take a couple of hours and write something artsy and interesting about how penguins live, there’s not really… well, I can’t really think of any problem with doing that, unless it’s like this consistent thing where I’m abandoning my responsibilities as husband and father to write about penguins.  Maybe you get what I’m saying without further exposition.)

So how do we, as believing artists, harness ideas faithfully in any context?

For starters, like most things in life, our ideas are not automatically redeemed just because they’re creative.  Why does such and such an idea stick in my mind and convince me of it’s value?  Is it because it appeals to a base sense of pride?  Is it because it frees my lazy heart to take shortcuts around things I have no business trying to make more efficient? Unless we have a basic mistrust of ourselves, we can’t begin looking at our ideas objectively.

At the point when we’ve vetted a particular idea for sinful motivation, community comes into play.  Like everything in life, this is nuanced and messy. The very practice of vetting the ideas with other people brings other sinful natures into the equation.  How can we trust the human checks and balances around us unless we are learning to live in community and die to self on a daily basis with these folks?  For believing artists, this boils down to church at it’s core.

The people in my life are valuable sounding boards, for a simple reason – more than likely, they will see my motivations more clearly than I do. Here is the moment (ideally) that I trust them to call me out, and the moment they trust me enough to call me out, knowing that I would want just that.

In other words, community is a way to keep me and my ideas honest and humble (repetition is one of my strong suits). This is probably more vital than I realize, and definitely more difficult.

When an idea is revealed to a community, everyone in it naturally considers the reasons for it existing, and particularly how it benefits the community.  Yonder lies arguments, but these should be welcome to us. For example: in a believing church context, where Christ is supreme, our ideas for artistic creation necessarily fall under parameters – usage (what is this for?), aesthetic value (which culture are you in? will the aesthetics hinder other aspects of your creation?), communication (will your meaning get lost in translation? does that matter?), etc.  This is the moment when we ask ourselves and our God the right questions, and half of the artistic process is learning what those are.

As artists, we often act defensively when others challenge our ideas.  I have trouble keeping track of the amount of times I’ve heard the words “well, what I meant was actually…” come out of my mouth.  I don’t mean we should create things that only appeal to the lowest common denominator. I do mean that if there’s something not registering, we should investigate the reasons why and learn from them. This feels like putting fences around artistic creativity, and it should. Creativity without boundaries is ultimately dangerous.

So say we have an understanding of our weakness, a community around us, good questions, and natural boundaries for our creativity. The end game of any idea is activation, and in many cases there is nothing to do but try it out and see where it goes.

At this point, let ‘er rip.

parenting amid beauty (and beasts)

Recently I’ve been seeing some responses to Disney’s choice to include their first openly gay character (itself a debatable designation) in the new “Beauty and the Beast” live action film. Most of them find it sad, or too political (“don’t put your paradigm in my popcorn flick”), but the majority seem to be in a tizzy about Disney indoctrinating children through classic stories.

I have three kids under four, and several things have never been more evident to me:
1. Sleep will never happen. Ever again. I am convinced I will wake up in the middle of the night out of force of habit until I die. I slept through the night about a month ago when the kids were gone and my body was like “what the heck are you doing?”
2. Kids see everything from a vastly different perspective than I do. Kind of like most everyone I know.
3. Kids are very easily swayed by things that affect them deeply, and nothing affects us more deeply than well-told stories and beautiful images. So we’ve decided they shouldn’t read anything at all or look at anything beautiful so that they are never affected.

You might see where I’m going with this.

As a musician and a writer, I love art of all sorts. Art communicates powerfully and viscerally, saying what cannot be said and making us know things in our inner parts. My kids will experience art. It’s not an if, it’s a when.

But I’m exquisitely worried about how and what they experience. We’re not just dealing with the poorly-written children’s books that should never have been published, let alone made their way into the clutches of my pink-obsessed daughter. We’re talking about communicating things deeply, subtly, and memorably. What my kids experience now will stick. I’m nervous about what will stick.

But I’m not so nervous that I’m going to boycott Disney.

My reasons have to do with my goals for my children. Ultimately, I want them to know and love Christ. Then I want them to love others around them the way He does. And finally, I want them to have a robust sense of how to approach anything they encounter with a believer’s backbone.

So here’s why I’m not nervous about Beauty and the Beast:

Our expectations are wack.

We need to stop being so surprised by our broader culture’s take on life and happiness and just about everything else. We can see truth here and there in your average media stream, and sometimes very brightly, but everything coming from a place of unbelief in Jesus Christ and His kingdom rules must be viewed through a grid: It’s broken. My job as a parent is to show my kids why and how, and what God is still doing by His unmerited grace. I help them build that believer’s grid in their own hearts and minds.

But if I’m expecting our entertainment streams to be free of the brokenness, the tension I encounter is my own creation.

Disney’s got way bigger issues than any LGBTQ agenda.

Practically, there are many more insidious issues than LGBTQ agenda represented in Disney movies that I don’t want my kids to buy into. This is one reason we’re going to hold off a little on princess flicks (Nadia would never come up for air at this point). But perhaps the deepest problem in Disney films is the whole “make your own destiny, the truth is within you” thing. If our biggest problem is a minor character’s sexual orientation, we’re not thinking first cause. We’re only treating symptoms.

I don’t HAVE to take my child to anything.

I’ve read responses to this movie that opine the death of childhood because now their three-year-old cannot go to it. First off, nightmares, guys. I’m not bringing a tiny human with an overactive imagination to a movie featuring a terrifying man-buffalo and a torch-wielding crowd, for the simple reason that I value what little sleep I get.

Aside from that, though: As a parent, it’s my responsibility and honor to protect my daughter and her brothers from things they aren’t ready for. Besides this, I have trouble believing 1) that the movies and books I experienced as a child were actually any better and 2) that my children are missing something vital by not seeing a particular Disney movie. Our time as a family, undoubtedly, could be better spent.

How does avoiding this actually prepare my kids for life?

It’s much more authentic to encounter these cultural things with my children, and at some point I must do that in order to prepare them to encounter things alone.

This bites down to a particular philosophy of parenting, the idea that we are authorities and friends to our children. The word “parent” contains surprising nuance, because you are a a guardian, a counselor, an authority, and a friend all at once. To me that says: yes, offspring, I will attempt to prevent harm from touching you. But I also need to give you the building blocks to grow and learn, and let you fall sometimes. When this comes to stories, movies, songs, art – I can walk alongside my children as they grow instead of hiding things from them. Shine a light on a scary thing and it loses its power. We need to be shining the light of Christ on things for our kids, revealing the true nature of them, and letting them learn how to hold the flashlight.

We cannot abdicate our roles as parents to anyone else. Our kids will learn from the larger culture and we won’t be able to avoid that, however, so what should we do? I believe we must strive for a relationship of love and authority that is deeply human (because we need Jesus too) and serious about them and the Lord. This is an anchor for them as they grow, and one that will help them weather the waves of popular culture.

Relationship is what matters.

We tend to give our kids too little or too much credit, because we don’t take the time to get to really know them or to see things from their perspective.

The only way I’m going to know what my kid can or cannot handle is by knowing them really, really, really well. And you don’t know someone that well without spending a lot of time with them, asking them questions and listening to them, and letting them ask questions. This kind of trust-building doesn’t just reveal possible triggers for kids depending on their personality and experiences, it also lets them know that when they hit on something they don’t understand, they will always have someone to talk to who won’t dismiss them or call their honest questions silly. Sounds like Someone else I know.

Taking the moral high ground doesn’t guarantee anything.

The responsibility for my children’s spiritual and moral state doesn’t rest solely on me and how I manage their movie-watching. Christ is the author and finisher of faith, and so to think that my parenting is going to be the final say on my child’s success or failure in life misses a deeply encouraging point: it’s not. It will affect it, definitely, for better or worse, so it matters. But ultimately, my kids are entrusted to me for a time but created and sustained by God.

So if your kid can manage it, go watch “Beauty and the Beast” and talk about it afterward with them. You might be surprised at what they’re thinking. But they’ll be thinking at least one thing: that their parent cares about them.

starving artists | patronage in the church

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I was back home over the holidays when the conversation came up (as it does) about creating something for someone in my parent’s church.

My mother has a lot of experience with artists of all kinds, having raised a couple. After describing the request in a very balanced way, she finished with: “She didn’t say anything about payment. She might be assuming you’ll do it for free.” (sympathetic pause) “Sorry.”

We talked a bit about it, with me giving some nice valid reasoning about how I am fine doing things for free for my own church, but frustrated about the assumptions people have regarding the arts in church: primarily, that it should be free.

My frustration, which is absolutely connected to the ever-present stress of making ends meet, is not unfamiliar to the other artists I know. For instance, in the world at large, there’s this sense of having to pay your dues as a growing artist, of having to do enough free or underpaid work until people start seeing cash-money value in your art. This is the normal stress of making your way in the world, and I believe that it’s okay and good.

But at some point that expectation (on both ends) should be adjusted. Somehow. Right?

Because besides getting past that point, there’s also the ever-present tension: do I create something authentic that won’t sell or something consumer-centered that will? The church is home to it’s own kitschy cash cows and starving snobs, but somewhere in between is a slew of people simply creating good things for their small-to-medium-sized churches across the country and pursuing creative endeavors on the weekends. The fortunate ones get a part-time job out of it. But most of us just donate our services to the church we attend.

I’m not here to complain about the church, and I don’t blame the church for the current cultural climate toward the arts. I do, however, think that as bodies of believers we need to be doing more to support the arts. In fact, I believe that we all need to intentionally provide patronage to the artists in our congregations.

Hey, I wouldn’t be an artist if I didn’t dream a little.

At some point in history, rich patrons started providing artists with housing, food, and money so that they could pursue their art. Bach is an example of someone who took advantage of this to write extensively for the church. Of course, this still goes on, with patrons of the arts in society making it possible for many artists to pursue full time work.

Why doesn’t the church do something like that more often?

The worship of the church could continue without art, if we’re being honest. Word and Sacrament are primary, and if we didn’t have music we would still be nourished by Christ at those tables. However, creative art, like the wonderful gift it is, is given to us as a way of enhancing our times of gathered worship and our everyday lives. Is this not a worthy investment?

Of all communities in this broken world, the church should lead the way in promoting beauty, truth, and empathy in communication. Of all communities, we can champion artists who are trying to be authentic in their work. The expectation of free labor from these artists could, just maybe, be damaging the idea that this sort of gracious, honest communication is valuable and necessary to the life of the church.  It definitely is not producing quality art (if you’re skeptical, take a look at what pays the bills for artists in Christian film-making…)

Speaking of the church, maybe a glimpse at it’s early life would be revealing:

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.   Acts 4:32-35

At this point this becomes an argument for a more robust type of church community. Because while artists may be one of the more visible contributors to the church, no one in the church should be in need, if we’re aiming for that ideal set for us in Acts.

So perhaps patronage (top-down) isn’t the answer.  Maybe community (side-to-side) is.

With communal finances, there’s good possibility of repaying artists in the church fairly through the financial gifts given to the church. And if there isn’t enough money in the coffers to support the artists in the church, churches can be honest about that instead of blowing steam about “sacrifices of praise.” Flipping the tables, if there isn’t enough money, artists can be humble enough to make sacrifices for their congregation. But mostly, if there isn’t enough, the community of the church can take up the slack.

It doesn’t have to be monetary and it’s not a solo endeavor.

Within the concept of communal patronage of the arts in churches lies some seriously awesome possibilities.  Allow me some what-ifs:

  1. What if a church sent several aspiring song-writers on a yearly collaborative retreat, fully-covered by the church, with the goal of writing new hymnody for the church?
  2. What if a church commissioned several painters in its ranks to create a series of works for church holy days, and rented them out to other churches and organizations?
  3. What if a church developed a series of worship arts workshops that allow kids to explore what it means to worship through other mediums besides music?
  4. What if a church bought a sizable shipment of an aspiring author’s new book to give as gifts to the congregation?

These are large-scale ideas, and I know of churches who have made these things happen. On the smaller scale though, there are everyday options for all of us:

  1. Buy albums instead of streaming them. Give actual money to those who give their music away at any price.
  2. Go to concerts, open mic nights, poetry slams, and art shows in your community, especially if someone in your church is involved. Bring friends.
  3. Share posts and events on social media. Create buzz for things. Act as an amplifier for their voices. Get beyond the like button and engage more deeply.
  4. Make the way clear for them to create – babysit, put some seed money toward equipment, cover their shift.

The truth of the matter is that communal patronage in the church is a commitment that lasts longer and requires more sacrifice than single large expenditures of money. Some of the questions we have to ask are:

  1. How do we form in young artists a theological framework for what they create for worship?
  2. How do we encourage artists that may not be fantastic to pursue their work diligently?
  3. How do we find places in the church for art that is heartfelt but not excellent?
  4. How do we form in church members the concept of sharing everything with the body, and encouraging each other day in and day out, as if they were family?

Essentially, the health of the church doesn’t just depend on the bigwigs up top developing us as congregants. It means us supporting those around us – in big and small ways, in truth and in love, and in a very daily fashion. We need to find those barriers to true community and break them down for the sake of a thriving body. I think the art of the church will be better for it.

Just think: what would we be able to create in that kind of community?

stealing christmas

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It’s that time of year again.

The time of year when artists of all disciplines go about sleepless and sick due to the overwhelming influx of high-production holiday stuff. They come from every corner – church, work, parties, shows, holiday EPs, radio overload, connecting with fans… This season may be lucrative but it definitely takes a toll. By the time we get home on the weekends the only thing left to do is doze in front of Netflix with some cookies and milk. You think Santa has it busy.

Besides us (because it’s not all about us), think about the production of Christmas festivities in every corner of society. Marketing and retail and bakeries and events and shopping lists. This season is nuts. And in the midst of it we’re expected (by ourselves and others) to make a ton of time for the social engagements in our lives, because nothing says Christmas like spending every single night with people you may or may not have seen all year. Then there’s finding the perfect gift and the perfect time to wrap the perfect gift and the perfect words to put in the perfect card to go on top of the perfect gift… And don’t forget to celebrate that huge stack of traditions – because it wouldn’t be Christmas without those.

One of our traditions is to watch yet again that classic tale of Mr. Grinch and his crusade to steal Christmas from a bunch of sanctimonious furries.

(Yes, the animated one. There is no other.)

This was the first year my two children watched it with us, and it brought a flurry of questions. Why was he always mean? How did he change? And mostly, as my 2 year old opined again and again for a week, “why’d da Squinch take da stuff, daddy?”

It brought home to me once again the value of a simple story to communicate truth. Let me be clear: by story I mean not telling only but showing. And by communicating truth I mean not hearing only but also understanding.

We tell our children all the time to be kind, but nothing drives home kindness like seeing a radical display of unkindness. We tell our children not to be selfish, and to share. But nothing hit them quite so much as the grasping, self-consumed story of this green grump trying to stop Christmas.

We tell them that our hearts are desperately wicked, and we can’t change them. But they see the Grinch’s heart change, and understand something bigger than themselves.

“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.”
“Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”
And what happened then?
Well…in Whoville they say,
That the Grinch’s small heart
Grew three sizes that day!

It’s a tiny window into a big truth. Dr. Seuss could have said (not like he would have):

Because the Who’s happiness wasn’t based on a consumer mentality that we see in the larger culture today, the Grinch saw the value of community and celebration and associated happiness with something more substantial.

There’s absolutely no depth of field there, because it’s an academic rendering of a pivotal event. The rendering doesn’t do much for us, because truthfully, you just had to be there.

No, instead of stuffing his Grinchy story full of trappings and psychology, the good doctor just told a story – and dude, it’s even derivative (Charles Dickens much?) He chose a couple lines that communicate something huge. Maybe this is also why Dickens’ most ubiquitous story is one of his shortest.

What I’m getting at is this: Less is way, way more. It wasn’t until old Grinchy-pants divested the Who’s of all of the trappings of the season that he saw the truth about Christmas.

During this time of year, we might do well to pilfer our analyses, systems, and semantics and take the stories we encounter for what they’re actually worth. Big ideas like hope, peace, joy, surprise, paradox – these are all impossible to cram into an academic paper, but they fit perfectly in 15-page children’s book, or a single chapter in Luke.

I have the great privilege of producing a very large annual Christmas extravaganza every year at the beginning of December. It’s a show that I’m proud of, done with incredibly talented people. When it’s all said and done, however, my favorite event of the season is the Christmas Eve service at my church, which consists of – in entirety – Scripture read by children, five or six well-worn carols, a five-minute homily, and real candles. That’s all there is, and the place is packed for it.

It comes without orchestra, choirs, or synths. It comes without spotlights, or sound techs, or visuals. It comes without cookies and punch, or finery of any sort. It comes like a baby sleeping in a feed trough. Like the first Christmas.

God made it this way. He delights in making use of the simplest things to shine light into dark hearts: A carpenter. A thirteen-year-old girl. Uneducated shepherds. A stable. A Baby. The best gifts do come in the smallest packages, it seems.

Maybe… perhaps… we should simplify our artistic endeavors this season so that the real meaning of Christmas shines through more brightly to ourselves and those around us. Maybe we need to be artistic Grinches more often, because when it’s all said and done, what all of our souls need this season might just be Luke 2 and O Come All Ye Faithful (unaccompanied).

Because Christmas isn’t esoteric, it’s a mystery.  There’s a big difference.

principalities and psalms | art in society

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The purpose of this blog is not political. We explore intersections of art and faith, to worship and wonder at what God does in the creative arts, and to create in light of reconciliation and redemption.

With that in mind, and in clean conscience, I’m going to get a little political up in here.  I hope you’ll bear with me. But don’t worry, I’m starting with something I think we’ll all agree upon: the Psalms.

I don’t know if any of you have had the same experience, but I’ve never been able to escape the gravitational pull of this wonderful, weird book. Growing up, there was always a word from God in the Psalms, a hug when I needed it, a shoulder to cry on. During my angst teen years, I felt like the Psalms got me like no one else. In word or song form, they carried me through college. They were my go-to guide for praise, confession, prayer, lament; in fact, anything that was happening in my life was bound to be in there. I still don’t understand some of them now, but I think I will someday.

My personal experience seems to also be true of the church at large. The Psalms formed or informed the liturgy of corporate and personal devotion in every age of the church. They are historic, foundational: this is how we talk to God and to ourselves. They show us our responses, our hurts, our shame and doubts and idols and heroes, in sharp relief. This, besides the fact that they are the very words of God, is why they endure.

When we read them, we realize: This is my life, and it’s not just my life in the happy times.  It’s my life in every single possible emotional state: joy, hatred, sorrow, peace, courage, fear, faith, doubt… Here in full-color HD is every life-slice you could hope for, and many you hope you don’t ever have to ever experience (or more likely, experience again).

Basically, the reason we love the Psalms is because they nail the human experience right on the nose, often in uncomfortable detail.

This is what art does.

I’ve heard it said that where a society’s artists go, there goes the society. The best of society’s artists look ahead, they cherish traditions even while reforming them, they dissect the present with keen blades, they inject hope and wonder into our lives. Mostly, they tell us the truths we don’t understand or want to hear. They force us to look and see, to think and feel. They compel us, whether we end up agreeing with them or not.

(BTW, Andy brought home this huge hairy point in his piece on horror last week. On so many levels, horror hits the mark with unswerving accuracy, humanizing the broken and unmasking evil. It’s the human experience, our deepest fears and worst nightmares, in detail so uncomfortable that huge swaths of the population can’t even stand to look. Horror, primarily, confronts me with my deep need for someone or something bigger than me to save me from myself and the forces of evil in this world.)

Where the Psalmist takes it a step further, and where we should too, is to transcend the human experience to show us the mind of God.

Our role as artists in our society – in any society – is the same as the Psalmist’s role: to show, without equivocation, the reality of our lives, and then to apply greater truths to these expressions. Attempt to inhabit the mind of God and push those around us to do the same.

Psalm 44 was the Psalm of the month at my church this past Sunday, and a prophetic choice indeed.

We have heard it with our ears, O God;
    our ancestors have told us
what you did in their days,
    in days long ago.
With your hand you drove out the nations
    and planted our ancestors;
you crushed the peoples
    and made our ancestors flourish.
It was not by their sword that they won the land,
    nor did their arm bring them victory;
it was your right hand, your arm,
    and the light of your face, for you loved them…

Brothers and sisters, we know the truth of the Gospel. Our God fights our battles for us – our strength is not in ourselves, our ability to communicate, or empathize, or create. We have seen Him work, and He is still at work every day.

But now you have rejected and humbled us;
    you no longer go out with our armies.
10 You made us retreat before the enemy,
    and our adversaries have plundered us.
11 You gave us up to be devoured like sheep
    and have scattered us among the nations.
12 You sold your people for a pittance,
    gaining nothing from their sale.

13 You have made us a reproach to our neighbors,
    the scorn and derision of those around us.
14 You have made us a byword among the nations;
    the peoples shake their heads at us.
15 I live in disgrace all day long,
    and my face is covered with shame
16 at the taunts of those who reproach and revile me,
    because of the enemy, who is bent on revenge…

Brothers and sisters, we face trials on all sides – and it would be foolish to dismiss this. Our lives are not peachy. The lives of our brothers and sisters globally are even less so.

23 Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
24 Why do you hide your face
and forget our misery and oppression?
25 We are brought down to the dust;
our bodies cling to the ground.
26 Rise up and help us;
rescue us because of your unfailing love.

Few of us would be comfortable with making these statements, but the Psalmist doesn’t bat an eye. Accuse God of sleeping? Check. Demand that He do something for us? Check. Accuse Him of apathy or forgetfulness? Check. Don’t pretend these things don’t cross your mind from time to time. Our emotions must be honest, but they must also be rooted in faith.

As we look ahead to the next chapter of leadership in America, it is incumbent upon us as believing artists to realize our responsibility here – a responsibility that is unattached to a political party, unattached to any earthly agenda for justice or peace, unattached to our personal vendettas or ambitions. (The root of our faith has never been in earthly kingdoms, so how can we be uprooted by them?)

Our responsibility at this juncture – as it has always been – is twofold:

To stare unflinchingly at the realities of our world, our country, our city, ourselves, and to name them as they are.  Pull back the curtains. Peel back the masks. Make us feel the fire of the truth in our innermost parts, as only artists can do.

And most importantly, to apply the healing balm of the Word of God and the love of Christ to each reality. Use your pen, brush, instrument, voice, body and heart and creative soul, spent for this purpose: to make Christ and His Gospel known.

In other words, make Psalms:

revealing,
recalcitrant,
poisonous,
peacemaking,
wailing,
dancing,
pleading,
bold,
doubting,
clinging,
Truth,
Love,
Christ.

In this we are prophets and poets, mouths and hands and bodies of and for God. And these things will endure well beyond demagogues, deceivers, destroyers, and death.

metaphorically speaking

madenewmetaphor

My daughter recently turned four. It’s possible that she experienced a grand shift to adult-like thinking solely from the knowledge of her new age, although the phases of learning and growing happen so fast these days. Whichever it is – intentional or natural – she’s starting to make connections and distinctions between the physicality of things and their inner nature.

There was a time when death meant that the insect, or the doll, or the grandmother, didn’t walk. She would come up and tell me that her baby didn’t walk, and my new parent mind flashed worry. She’s playing that her doll is dead. What do I tell her? These days, she knows that the dead don’t feel physical pain now, and can’t inflict pain on others. This is a comfort to her, knowing that the body is separate from the actual person at some point. Her brother, meanwhile, learned this summer that you don’t grab recently-deceased yellow jackets. Everything is more complicated than it seems.

Recently, she’s also been exploring the differences between fantasy and reality, something perhaps too few of us have figured out. She used to tell me about things she had experienced that weren’t lies so much as very vivid stories – in her mind, real life. Now her stories are indeed real life, and very clearly delineated from pretend play.

I think I miss it. But then again, I’m not the best at separating out that which should have a healthy degree of separation. Like Heaven and earth.

I live and die by the creative connections I uncover, as many artists do. We are communicators all, and typology, symbology, synthesis, double meanings – these things are our bread and butter.

This is metaphor, that you can have your cake and eat it too. It’s the ever-present mystery that we are physical and spiritual, flesh and soul, finite and infinite, saved and being saved.  There is a world behind this world, or maybe on top of this world, or underneath? I’ve never quite figured out how it works, despite my delving into every multi-dimensional sci-fi flick I can find. There is and there isn’t, is the whole point. Or maybe it’s not.

This weird, wonderful world we live in is, rightly so, teeming with these conundrums.  Heaven is always peeking through the cracks at us, flitting away when we turn to catch what was only in our peripheral at best. Perhaps because we are caught in this intrinsic tension, we have deep difficulty reconciling the differences between heaven and earth in our daily lives.

We are sanctified and saved, fully, in Christ. But our daily lives are more like bloody battlefields, and it’s hard to tell which side is winning.

We eat His Body and drink His Blood, but grow fat on our bread and drunk on our wine.

We uplift the glorious mystery of marriage as Christ and the Church, and fall devastatingly short in our goals of being either one.

We seek transfigurations and find people the same as when we left them last week. We find ourselves to be the same as last week, month, year. What is wrong with us? Shouldn’t our lives here be continual transformations into Christ?

Sorry. I meant, the image of Christ. Perhaps that distinction actually changes things.

The truth of the matter is, Juliet is not actually a flaming ball of fire in the sky, this earth is not Heaven, and we are not Christ. The difficulty with metaphors and analogies is the expectations we project onto them: Husbands should be Christ. Wives should be the ideal Church. Prayer and Bible reading should stop us from Giving In Next Time. God looks like our conception of a perfect Father (if we were to form our expectations out of every biblical metaphor, He might very well look like a mother hen in our minds, too).

So what happens when, inevitably, those expectations are not met?

I started out my meandering train of thought earlier talking about the difference between imaginary stories and real life, as my daughter sees them. I drew a parallel to Heaven and earth, and how we need to make a distinction. But none of you (I hope) would assume from this that I think Heaven is not real. The metaphor breaks down when it becomes the end goal.

The end goal of my argument is this: there is a distinction between Heaven and earth.

This earth will never be Heaven. Why would God make extensive plans for an entirely new Earth if it was on us to fix this one? Expecting to ultimately fix ourselves, others, the environment, poverty, war, pain – this is a futile thing.

When the Bible uses metaphor, perhaps its better for us to take a step back and view it as such, in hopes of determining the actual goal of the text. My wife is not the church, and I am not Christ. We will never be these things.  But I must sacrifice my personal needs and desires to love her unconditionally. This is an ideal, and ideals are good and necessary.  But if I don’t connect this with the fact that my heart is desperately wicked, that I do what I do not want to do, I am in for continual frustration. If I do connect the ideal and my total inability, a bigger Truth looms behind the metaphor, imbuing my earthly life with deeper meaning and good, good hope.

Christians are called to be the most optimistic of pessimists. We look at the world and say, “Yep, that’s a lost cause.” And we keep trying to save it. Wait. That isn’t right, is it?

We keep telling the world Who can actually save it.

Jesus Christ bridged the gap between Divinity and mankind, so we could be reconciled and made new, prepared for the New Heaven and New Earth over time and in ways we could never anticipate and certainly not choose for ourselves. Christ is not metaphor, because metaphor is calling one thing as though it was something else like it. Christ is two-and-the-same, God-Man, and the word for that is not metaphor, it’s Incarnation.

When we talk about our responsibility to make things new here on this blog, we are using a form of metaphor. We don’t actually make things new. We are incapable of that. We are image-bearers only.

We participate in making things new when we point to the God-Man who actually Makes New. In essence, we uplift the Gospel that is bursting out or seeping from every art form. This world is indeed teeming with Heaven, and some day Heaven won’t just peek through the cracks, it will bust this old place wide open and a brand new Heaven and Earth will emerge.

on labor

laborpost

It took me years to understand a simple concept that obedience might have taught me – the absolute and slightly mysterious need for rest.

During my senior year of college my wife and I made a resolution to set aside our Sundays as true Sabbaths – oases of rest in the week – and to do only things that refreshed us personally.  This was not easy to achieve.  Our church was in the suburbs, far from our downtown apartment, and our involvement was heavy in the music and worship ministry there. Our social calendar was full, and we both had work and homework and hobbies and families… the things we all carry – gladly, of course.  But we made a mutual pact, and probably because it was mutual we were mostly able to keep it.

Our formula was one specific to us, and perhaps to others, and I record it here only as an example:

  1. Worship
  2. Rest
  3. Fellowship

In the morning we had responsibilities, but we determined to view those responsibilities as an act of worship.  Our 8 AM choir rehearsal was not just part of a busy internship, but an opportunity to sing words of thanksgiving and adoration with our church family.  We took comfort in the liturgies and prayers, comfort in the repetition and familiarity, comfort in the new mercies every Sunday morning.  Comfort in a cup of watery church coffee and windmill cookies, served with a smile and the ask – how was your week?  Here, in the church, is where we as fellow laborers, fellow artists, fellow humans, belong and find our being.

As a musician, it took me a long while to let this shape my identity in the church. Viewing our Sunday rituals as restorative, and my contributions as acts of worship instead of career-boosters or networking, was what tipped the balance.

We would often be invited over to lunch following our afternoon choir rehearsal, and we ate in homes of almost all of the parishioners there, learning more about them and answering the dozens of questions.  This was tiring for me – I’m an introvert, after all – but there is something weirdly refreshing about expressing genuine interest in someone else. If you’ll allow the word magical, I think it applies, for it captures how puzzled I am by this phenomenon.

When we returned home, mid-afternoon, we read books that had nothing to do with classes or education.  Stories refreshed us – deep, cool pools full of the sheer beauty of words and action.  Required reading dulled the impact, as always, but a book about wizards from the young adult section of the Chicago Public Library made me think again about learning with a sense of wonder.  Or, if we didn’t read books, we napped.

These days, with three kids, we have to work to keep the afternoon nap a thing.  I fought it as a child, so I suppose I deserve the afternoon combat (“If you don’t go to sleep now I’m coming in there, and you’ll regret it!”)  But in college I dropped off faster than anything.

That was a great discovery – a 20-some-minute afternoon nap, no more, no less, preceded by a cup of coffee and followed by a glass of water – was incredible.  We think we don’t need these things when we grow old, until we try them and realize the absolute necessity.  Kind of like exercise, or eating right.

And in the evenings, after our quiet afternoons, we craved company.  We ate meals with friends, or hosted at our small apartment, or called up random people on a whim to go walking in the city or have a picnic involving nothing more than a gallon of Breyers cookies and cream and five spoons.

We came home, set up our schedules for the week, did some minor homework, and went to bed early.

I think, in retrospect, we were developing an understanding of how we were meant to function as human beings.  We were developing the humility to see that we weren’t invincible, that we needed rest, that we needed community; mostly, that we needed God.

We were also realizing that rest is not necessarily the complete cessation of labor. When we sat and mindlessly watched TV or lazed around doing nothing, we often came out of it more tired than ever. Recently, one of the most rejuvenating tasks I’m engaged in is simply washing the dishes, or cutting up fruits and vegetables for a meal.  These are normal, easy activities that restore and create in the world within which I’m designed to restore and create.

If I were to proffer some sort of encouragement or meditation on this Friday of Labor Day weekend, it would be to put some serious thought and time into planning how you will find rest for your soul this long weekend.  We labor so long throughout the week, sometimes non-stop, we labor at our art, we labor to achieve.  This weekend, labor well, and then stop laboring and take some time to enjoy the work of God’s hands – His creation, His stories, His people.  Look at everything around you, and realize how very good it is, and on the seventh day, rest.  And maybe even extend your Sabbath to Monday…

 

 

cultural accumulation, peanut butter, and the books

made|new|collage

One of my friends, about two years back, suggested a band that I’ve since grown to love called The Books.

The Books specialize in amalgamations of sound bytes from obscure sources combined with original acoustic elements and loops.  Old radio broadcasts, sound effects, spliced interviews, segments of old songs… as sound curators, the descendants of musique concrète and pasticcio, they collect these disparate elements and string them together into an off-context collage that somehow makes sense as a whole.

What comes out of this approach is arresting.  In “Take Time,”spliced verses from Ecclesiastes, bursts of laughter, and radio self-help celebrate thoughtful pause. Segments of gospel songs, banjo etchings, clicks and crunching gravel create an atmosphere of backwoods strength in “Lemon of Pink I.” “Of the Word God”is solely clips of that word from a church service, but the intensity and fervor of the speaker becomes subtly disturbing as it intensifies – is she truly using it reverently? or in vain? “Ghost Train Digest” features unhelpful interjections from an old radio drama, suggesting the story without offering any plot (perhaps as an indictment, or a satire). “Excess Straussess” layers repeated strings, yearning for, perhaps, the spoken, distorted Word, “salvation.”  Found sounds settle into toe-tapping grooves, rhythms of speech strike fresh, and words transform in the space of seconds.

It strikes me that our interaction with creativity in this digital age is similar.

We move through our lives as collectors, picking up bands and playlists, authors and artists, styles and genres, and stashing them as influences that shape our identities. We string them together, tape them up in odd formations.  We curate. We create mixtapes. We tell our friends about our latest finds. We are museums, scrapbooks, collages – songs by The Books.

This cultural accumulation can be dangerously ingrown.  That’s how we run social media, isn’t it?  Pick your friends, pick your favorites, pick your styles, pick your content. We can easily end up with an echo chamber of our own interests and desires, a mirror by which we shape our selves to become more and more like our selves. Our content, assisted by ad agencies, is tailored to what we like (instead of what would challenge us to think differently and, oh I don’t know, change).  We consume more and more of what our flesh wants instead of what our hearts need.

There’s a different way to consume culture.

This way looks at the creative products around us and says: This is good. That is not good.  This is beautiful and true. That is ugly, but also true. Selecting the most valuable and meaningful cultural artifacts, we paste them together to see where they might lead. When they lead us to a place of greater understanding and wisdom, greater empathy and love, we can speak Christ into our culture. Or they may even lead us to Christ himself.

Every one of us has the responsibility and privilege of making biblical value judgments on what we encounter. We must always be willing to say – unequivocally – that something is a lie, or repulsive, or destructive, and it is so because God said so. However, in our bent and broken world, truth and lies, ugliness and beauty, goodness and badness are always mixed up and layered over each other like so many samples of old radio programs. Discernment and nuance must come into play – anchored in God’s Word.

Thankfully, the truth is like the contents of an overstuffed peanut butter and jelly sandwich. No matter how much you try to suppress it, it will always squeeze its way out through the cracks.  That’s when we get to point out the sticky goodness all over our fellow creators’ fingers.

The Books manufacture every song with a thread – a melody, a rhythm, a hook, a word. Everything else hangs together on that thread, even when spinning randomly like a mobile. Our lives and the circumstances we find ourselves in also have a thread – and that thread is Christ.  The cultural providences we bump into and the streams of art we wade through should never be thought of as random in this universe.  God is working, and we get to listen for a greater, deeper, older resonance in this vast world of new wonders.

the artist in church

made|new|churchartist

I once asked a friend what single thing the church needed to hear from artists, and the response was that the church on the whole doesn’t create room to hear them.

He went on to explain that artists question things, and explore areas that a lot of church folks are really uncomfortable about – for instance: doubt, fear, repulsion, sin, the felt absence of God in a life and what that means.  These run counter to an individualized, American Christianity.

The church wants beauty, and love, and righteous happy endings.  It’s about triumphant transformation and freedom from sin and courageous evangelism.  The church is about movement, a gradual increase of holy, happy living. These ideas are often the topics of priority in American churches, and for good reason. Every single thing I’ve listed above is (with deeper context) a hallmark of Christ-centered faith.

Where the disconnect occurs for artists could be that they won’t accept pat answers or lack of context.

Classifying artistic temperaments is difficult – like any classification of the complex, living, thinking beings called humans.  However, I believe that there are baseline “compulsions” of artists.  Primarily – creation, communication, exploration, and passion.

Artists live to create. This is not just artists, of course.  For instance, craftsmen – such as carpenters, engineers, plumbers – all incorporate creative expertise in their professions.  The drive to create is simply a fundamental element of created beings.

Artists create to communicate.  When sound is intentionally designed to communicate concepts and aesthetics, that is art, and its creator is an artist.  This translates to craftsmen too; when an architect designs a building to say something specific about symmetry or to model nature: that is art.  When a chef show utmost respect for ingredients and sense of place, or makes modern art on a plate: they are an artist.

Artists communicate to explore. They look at life as they find it and ask: Why? It’s this deep curiosity that is simply not satisfied with easy answers. This need to live in the question is vital to a church founded on Someone who is way beyond our finite minds.  Without the perpetuation of mystery and wonder that artists can provide, truth can seem like shallow, easy answers.  When we provide the space for artists to explore theological truths deeply, in different sensory ways, those truths take on the profound qualities they always had.  Increased artistry equals increased understanding.

So yes, the church needs to hear and value the contributions of the artistic people in their congregations.

But artists also need to listen.

Artists explore passionately.  This can be a double-edged sword. Artists, necessarily, get excited about what they are creating, communicating, and exploring.  This passion is what drives them to do it in the first place.  Passion, though, can be misdirected.

The church as a whole is full of people from a variety of backgrounds and ideologies.  When I come into a church community, there’s something at stake larger than my gifts and personality.

Yes, I am valuable. Just like everyone else.

Yes, the church should make room for my gifts. Just like they should for everyone else.

I have frequent conversations with young artists of all disciplines who are concerned about the lack of beauty and art in churches.  They are passionate about the church being a proponent for the arts in every community and serving artists in its congregation.  This is coming at it from the wrong direction.

The church is not here to serve artists.  It’s here to be served by artists. Church isn’t about me, it’s about giving glory to God with His people.

Being a part of the church is about being nourished by His Word, His sacraments, prayer, fellowship, discipline, etc.  It’s about loving those around me more than my own creative voice.  And it’s about using my creative voice to participate in all of those things.

Churches:

Don’t be afraid of where artists will go with the truth of God’s Word.  Press into relationship with them that will guide and form conclusions.  Make space for them to find mentors in the arts and in your congregation.  Reference and respect art in your sermons and liturgy.  Use their art for mutual edification in your services, and to stretch your church.  Encourage your congregation to support their work outside of the church.  Create opportunities to reach out to your community through your artists. This will be a key outreach for communicating Christ in the coming days, because it can be both loving and honest, declamatory and conversational.

Artists:

Take a chill pill.  Turn from trumpeting your temperament to submitting it to the service of the body. Get over your ambition to be heard and ask your leaders what you can do to augment worship.  Adjust your expectations by serving in small ways – even and especially ways that are outside of your comfort zone.  Encourage and applaud other people’s contributions to the life of the body – especially when they are different then your own.  Exercise patience, charity, and respect toward leadership and congregation alike.  Learn to live in love, and to let yourself be loved.