hir | the chaos of sin

The curtain rises to reveal a stage strung with chaos. My body tenses slightly, and I glance apprehensively at the friend who invited me. He glances back. Neither of us know what to expect from a slice-of-life drama featuring Issac, a war-traumatized vet home from Afghanistan; Max, his gender-fluid younger sibling; Arnold, their stroke-disabled father who abused them all for years; and Paige, their manic-depressive mother.

The show is Hir (pronounced ‘here’; the play takes its name from the gender-neutral possessive pronoun), produced at the Steppenwolf Theatre. Written by Taylor Mac, the play tips its hand from the first glimpses of the stage and the performers: you are about to enter a world where things are desperately wrong. The author specifies the play’s genre as ‘absurd realism’, and the absurdity of the situation is darkly comic as the characters of the play struggle in increasingly erratic ways to come to terms with the chaos that marks their lives.

The story opens when Issac comes home from the war to find his childhood home in shambles. His mother, Paige, has stopped cleaning anything as a reaction against the abuse and strict perfectionism of her husband, Arnold, prior to his stroke. Issac soon finds out that his mother has been hiding everything significant from him in his absence: their home is a pigsty, his father’s supposedly ‘minor’ stroke has in fact left him unable to speak or care for himself, and the family is destitute.  Soon Issac’s younger sibling Max appears on the scene. When Issac left, Max was his sister Maxine. Now Max is gender-fluid. This, too, was a secret kept from Issac. On the day that Issac arrives home, Paige and Max have already made plans to see a local art exhibit. Issac declines to go, and Paige and Max leave him at home with Arnold, on the condition that Issac resist the temptation to clean. Issac agrees, but does not keep his word. Everything else that happens arises from that broken promise.

It seems wrong to say that I enjoyed the play. How can I claim to enjoy the dramatization of that much pain? I learned from the play. I was grieved by the play. It mesmerized me because it was a finely acted, brilliantly written, expertly produced play. But I did not enjoy it. I saw sin and its consequences acted with crystalline artistry. It caused me to wonder: how can this writer, who likely does not believe that there is such a thing as sin, do a better job of portraying sin than any Christian production I have seen?

Because, believe me, all the pain and death of sin, and the immense brokenness of the world, were fully present in Hir. Issac suffers from PTSD. Arnold abused his family for years and the rage still boils below the fog of his new-found disability. Paige, bitter and exhausted from the years of abuse, has turned Arnold’s abuse back on him and now refuses him basic cleanliness and dignity. Max, lonely, hurt, and confused, shoulders the awful task of diplomacy between all members of a family torn apart when the sin of the father is visited on the children.

What response is appropriate? I sat and joined in the uncomfortable laughter of the audience at times, but I wept by the end of the show. I watched one couple get up and walk out, but I could not tear my eyes away from the wreckage before me. I disagreed with practically every philosophy presented in this production, but I found my presuppositions challenged by it.

Great art should change us in some way. When you encounter a truly exceptional creation, you have interacted in some way with the deepest parts of someone’s soul, and that should affect you in some way. Hir was great art, and it did move me. It made me view gender-fluid persons with much more compassion (that it took a secular production to make me feel that, and not the church, is a discussion for another day). It made me wonder why Christians, who more than any other group of artists should understand the wages of sin, are so very bad at portraying it.

It’s hard to see the glory of the cross and beauty of redemption unless we see the heinousness of our sin. The question, for me, is no longer, ‘Should we portray darkness’, but rather, ‘How dark should we allow our art to be in our attempt to highlight the depravity of the human condition’? It takes a grace-healed eye to see glory and mercy, but almost any person can see how sin can destroy. What if Christian artists, instead of being afraid that showing sin would glamorize it, realized that accurate depictions of sin and it consequences strip themselves of their own glamour? How will we ever feel our need of a Savior unless we feel the sickness of our souls?

Because, oh how Hir longed for, but was denied, redemption. How it longed for grace, but got only unforgiveness. How it ached for wholeness and health, but found only fractures and disease. Each of these characters (and their real-life, in-our-communities counterparts) were dying slow and agonizing deaths as the bill for their sin came due.

No Christian production has ever made me feel the weight of sin the way Hir did. If we dared to strip away the masks of decency and decorum we place on sin, and expose it for the hideous death it is, how might a similar weight be used in the hands of artists who know both the cost, and the payment, of our sin?

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faith and art in real time

madenewgrowth

I often write very theoretically and philosophically about art and faith. It’s easier than being very vulnerable. But today I’d like to take a detour from that path, if that’s alright, and tell you all what the intersection of faith and art looks like in my life right now.

I am applying for graduate school. For years, I’ve talked about this one goal. I remember saying goodbye to the staff at the International Christian School of Budapest, and going to grad school was my stated reason for leaving, and one that I believe is God-ordained. But then I got to Chicago, and a whole host of other issues sort of took over for a season (you can read about that here if you feel so inclined). Now I’m back in a practice room, every day, or nearly every day, and I am learning so much.

Yes, I’m obviously learning new music and new techniques, as one generally does in a practice room. I’m also learning deep, soul-stirring lessons. I’d like to share them with you, so here they are, in no particular order.

  1. Practicing is often not fun, but faithfulness to what God has asked me to do and be demands that I practice. Every day, after I get off work at 4:30, I walk down the hall from the admissions office to the practice rooms in the music building. I’d rather go home. I’d rather eat my dinner and watch Netflix, but for this season, God is calling me to practice hard. This is not merely an issue of stewardship of my voice and my talents. This has cosmic proportions. Recently, when I look at the chaos of the world around me, I wonder what I, in my frailty and ignorance, could ever do to help such a situation. Every time I think that, though, God is faithful to remind me that healing the gaping wounds of this world is His job. It is mine to be faithful to the task He has given me, and right now, even if I don’t understand how on earth it benefits anyone, my God-appointed task is to apply for graduate school, and that necessitates rigorous practice. Viewed in this light, every practice session becomes an attack against the dark. Any act done in obedience to the call of God, no matter how small, is a beacon of light. Practicing becomes a holy act of war.
  2. There is no room for fear. I am often tempted to be afraid – of rejection, of failure, of debt, of change. I often think of the admonition against fear as applying to spiritual things, or at least to life and death matters, not to my pre-audition jitters. That’s not nearly holy or significant enough to matter to God. But He sees sparrows. He clothes lilies. My fears are significant to Him, and He calls me to hand them over to Him. In a marked departure from the kind of music that I normally listen to as the music nerd that I am, the Chris Tomlin song ‘Whom Shall I Fear‘ has become my rallying cry as I face the thought of audition panels. ‘I know who goes before me, I know who stands behind, the God of angel armies is always by my side. The one who reigns forever, He is a friend of mine, the God of angel armies is always by my side’, is a potent antidote to the fear of judgment by selection committees. He walks ahead of me onto every stage, and I am eternally and unequivocally a child of the Most High. Really, whom shall I fear in any audition, no matter how exalted the stage?
  3. I am learning to take my own advice that I gave here, and invite God intentionally into my practicing. I have begun to pray before I practice. I’m learning to surrender even a practice session and ask that He would be pleased to make it productive and fun. When things aren’t going well, I ask Him who made my voice what approach I should take to get it to respond the way I want it to. I have begun to thank Him for a good practice session. This approach, coupled with a belief that my practicing matters in some eternal, invisible, supernatural way, has fueled me to greater productivity in a practice room than I have ever experienced since I was 13 years old.
  4. Phones are the death of a helpful practice session. I’ve started leaving it in my office when I practice. There’s very little chance that something earth-shatteringly important is going to happen in the 90 minutes or so that I will be separated from my phone. When I don’t have it with me, there is no temptation to browse Facebook or Instagram. If a text comes through, I don’t know about it, so its presence doesn’t derail my concentration. If my practice session isn’t going well, the easiest thing to do is to think, ‘Well, I’ll just take a little break and come back to it in a few minutes’. I’m fairly certain every single millennial reading this has pulled this stunt, whether in a practice room or somewhere else. Guess what? Your motivation probably isn’t going to improve in the 10 minutes you just spent on Facebook. If anything, you’ll likely be less motivated and interested in your sub-par practice/study/workout/Bible reading session. Don’t just put your phone down. Put it somewhere you have to exert a significant amount of effort to get it, and then get back to the task at hand.
  5. My abilities develop at precisely the rate that God intends they should develop. This is a lesson I’d rather ignore at times. The truth is that everything on this earth is under the control of Almighty God. Why would I ever think that my voice and musical development is exempt from that inviolable reality? There have been times that I have raged at my inability to do certain things as a singer. I am learning that this is also not mine to control. It has been given to me to be faithful in practicing what I have learned in a lesson, memorizing music, and accessing my God-given and God-reflecting creativity as best I can. The outcome is not mine to determine. What God makes of my faithfulness is not my business.

I am learning so much more than just new music these days, and you know what strange reality I’ve encountered as I’ve been enabled to loosen my grip on my music as my identity? Singing is so much more fun than it ever was. Yes, sometimes it’s tough to make it to a practice room, but on the whole, singing has become more joy-filled than it has been in a long time. I hope the same is true for you. In fact, you should come make music with me.

I’ll be in a practice room.

toast and feast | why artistry in the kitchen is essential

madenewfeast

I remember the summer I fell in love with cooking.

I was 19 years old and on a three-week-long choir tour in Greece. I had been a fan of Mediterranean cuisine long before the trip, but those three weeks awakened me to the joy of cooking.

It was all due to one man named Henri. Our choir was staying at a Christian camp somewhere in Greece, both at the very beginning and the end of the trip. Henri served as the camp chef. The details of his life story were never entirely clear, save that he was a highly-trained chef who had devoted his formidable skills to the service of his brothers and sisters who stayed at that camp, who would feast at his table.

And what a feast it was. I remember the night he served us risotto alongside lamb meatballs with a fresh tomato and parsley sauce. I literally sang the opening bars to Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ upon tasting it, and my choir-mates laughed a little at my theatrics. I meant that outburst – delicious food causes me to worship.

When I came home from that choir tour, I decided I wanted to learn how to cook. I could already follow a recipe well enough, but I wanted to learn to create in the kitchen. I began tinkering more and more. As a child and teenager, my gastronomic efforts were marked by overcooked food. I set things on fire in the kitchen more than once. I determined to leave that reputation behind and learn to prepare food so that I could honor guests with an excellent meal the same way that Henri did.

As I have continued my quest toward being a good cook, I have discovered that food made with artistry blesses a person more deeply than just satisfying their physical hunger. The time spent in a kitchen says that they are worth the time food preparation takes. At its core, cooking is service. Whatever Gordon Ramsay may try to make us believe, being a chef is not a glamorous role. It is hard work for the good and enjoyment of other people. Good food and hospitality should be an offer of rest and safety. It should say, in a world that is intent on making us believe we are emotionally homeless, ‘You have a home here.’

Good food can also help us to reset the rhythm of our lives. In 21st century America, where if things are not instant, they are at least express, taking time to make everything from scratch speaks a needed message: we have time to celebrate the goodness of God in the food he has placed on this earth. We have time to celebrate each other by sharing a meal. That our bodies need regular fuel reminds us that we are finite and inherently weak, even while the process by which we convert food into energy is miraculous and glorious.

In learning to cook, I discovered another element of joy: creation. There are few things as satisfying to me as the pure creative power of taking raw food and transforming, shaping, blending, and flavoring it until the taste I envisioned and could nearly smell in the empty air sits realized and plentiful on my kitchen table. Like all other art, it is then best consumed in the company of friends.

As I look at the purposes of art, good food fulfills all of them. It enriches the lives of those who consume it. It causes me to worship the God who made the ingredients, who allows me the skills and means necessary to prepare it, who made my taste buds, and who decreed that the human body would enjoy and profit from a wide variety of food (and not merely, say, the slop that Mr. Anderson, et al., were forced to eat in the Matrix movies). It allows me to play with color and texture and nuance as I think of new combinations of flavors. It reminds me of my humanity and my need for rest and renewal. Given that Adam and Eve’s first sin involved eating, that Jesus called us to remember His death by sharing a meal, and that, one day, we will feast together at the marriage supper of the Lamb who was slain, it thus echoes the Gospel.

A few weeks ago, I read a quote on the Instagram account of singer/songwriter Andrew Peterson. It said, ‘Let every feast be a declaration of war against all that is not true.’ I’m not sure who said it, but I’m fairly certain he was quoting someone else. Whoever said it has crystalized what I love about good food: it is a beautiful declaration of war. Good food tells me that God loves me. It wages war against the lie that he is stingy. It proclaims to every guest that they are beloved and combats the lie that all they are worthy of is the inattention of a TV dinner.

A good dinner speaks love outpoured from God to man, and then from man to neighbor. Was there ever a better reason to create?

this beautiful community | inviting others into our creative process

made|new|communityartAuthor’s Note: This is a companion piece to an article I wrote a while back called This Beautiful Altar: Surrendering our Creative Process

I’ve never enjoyed exercising. Ever since I began voice lessons at age 13 in 8th grade, I’ve shunned organized sports. My lack of eye-hand coordination and dislike of sweat was as much of a motivating factor as my love of music in this decision. As I’ve progressed through adulthood, however, the need to exercise has become increasingly important. I decided that before I reached age 30, I wanted to make physical fitness a consistent and vital part of my life. I’d tried many times before, but would only make it for about 3-4 months before I got bored or lazy or too busy, and my exercise efforts would abruptly halt. A year and a half ago, that changed. I met a girl at work who also needed a workout partner, and we set a schedule. After about 10 years of trying to workout, I finally succeeded in making it a habit, but I was only successful because I was not alone.

So too with creating.

I have a dream of an artistic community wherein differing styles and disciplines and personalities mingle and clash and sharpen. It is so much more than mere accountability, although I deeply need that, too. It goes beyond critique and criticism, even though those things are necessary and invaluable. It is far more profound than simple mutual enjoyment of our art, despite the joy it brings.

A community of redeemed artists must reflect in their habits the true nature of their calling.

And what a high calling has been given to the artists and the poets:

  • To offer glimpses of eternity
  • To remind us of the glory we will see one day
  • To hold up a cracked and sympathetic mirror of our brokenness
  • To give voice to pain that many cannot express
  • To reflect in some small way the beauty of the Elohim the Most Beautiful

This calling means our questions to our fellow artists must go beyond form and technique to questions of the soul. If our art is ever to play a part in making anyone else new, we must first ourselves be made new. That means we must agree to dive deep into each other’s pain and sit among the shards of broken glass, and then ask how it can best and most truly be translated into art. That means we must speak the truth of the Gospel into each other’s brokenness and then ask how that healing can also be best and most truly translated into art. That means we must delve in to the mysteries of Almighty God, for how can we reflect a glory that we do not yearn for or see? How can we reflect his beauty unless we have first gazed upon the beauty of the Lord?

In this dream, we must move beyond mere criticism of each other’s art. Anyone can criticize. We must walk together as brothers, know each other as sisters, and when we have shone the light of truth on each other’s darkness, say to the other ‘Now this is the story you tell.’ We must spur each other on to a greater knowledge of the holy and then together paint a clearer picture of He who is Awesome and Holy and Terrifying and Lovely. We must journey together as we are made new and then tell the story of that making.

Even the Godhead created in trio.

Certainly we were never meant to walk alone.

out of stillness, life

made|new|peacelake

If you walk along the eastern edge of North Pond in Lincoln Park, Chicago, right up close to the water, you may chance to find a very special tree. Many years ago, it would seem, the tree was split in half somehow, and now both halves of the tree curl over to the ground. The tree abuts the water, and so if you duck under one half of the now-horizontal trunk, you’ll walk down a little slope to the water’s edge and bulrushes. I stepped in, and found that some kindly park rangers had left a nice chunk of wood as a seat there. There in the middle of Chicago, in the semi-shelter of the park, I found an even smaller refuge where not even my fellow park-walkers could see me, and at last my mind uncoiled from everyday life long enough and free enough to dream.

As I sat beneath that ancient tree, I thought how I cannot create from a place of rush and hurry, from a place of noise. I’ve often noticed that my mind and dreams are most alive late at night when at last the world is quiet. When I get to a practice room at the end of the workday, I usually need at least 15 minutes of staring into space before I can begin warming up. As I converse with other artists, I hear similar stories: minds awakening and ideas flowing only when the rest of the world has gone to bed. It’s an old story.

It makes sense. The production of good art exacts a high price from its creators, demanding all our intellect, judgment, talent, emotion, and vulnerability. How can anyone have the presence of mind to create when so much brain space is already devoted to a steady stream of media and information? Perhaps part of the reason that arts are suffocated is the constant chatter.

This is not the paradigm of Scripture. Our LORD never created from a place of so much chaos. He is himself Peace and so all that he brought into being was made in peace. How can I think that I would be able to do better? No, we must commit to stillness before creation. We cannot create from chaos – our finite minds will not allow it.

Even more profoundly, if we are seeking to tell God’s story, we cannot hear his words through the cacophony. Our art becomes a deeply worshipful endeavor when we submit its production and content in their entirety to His control. We cannot hear how and what we should produce when so many other voices compete for our attention. No, we must commit to stillness if we are ever to find the fountainhead of our art. We are fools if we think that we can create anything apart from the Creator.

I wish I could say that I discovered today, there beneath that Hobbit-hole of a twisted tree trunk, the magic formula to stillness. I didn’t. I know enough of the ancient mystics of the Christian faith to know that stillness takes time and patience. In a world where Google reports that it took 0.53 seconds to access the entire combined knowledge of the world on the subject of MacBooks (my test subject since that’s what I’m typing on), time and patience are unheard of or simply ridiculed. To add extra time to our artistic process seems impossible, since we barely have time to devote to art in the first place.

But what if our lack of stillness has deprived our art of its oxygen? What if we have been limiting ourselves all these years because we could not take the time to sit in His presence and ask the Most Beautiful One what we should make and how? I think our deepest writer’s block and dullest paintings and most inane music could be fed and elevated not by a futile search for inspiration, but by time spent whispering into the stillness, ‘Creator…teach me!’