how to accept critique

“Separate the wheat from the chaff.”

Def: to separate things or people that are of high quality or ability from those that are not:
The first round of interviews really separates the wheat from the chaff.”
– 
Cambridge Dictionary

I grew up hearing this phrase. It was one of my Mom’s many Mom-isms, parental phrases repeated over and over again that, every time I heard them, made me quietly roll eyes and say “Mahhmm!” droningly to myself. It was especially used in my high school years, when after receiving a lecture or some chunk of motherly advice that my Mom was absolutely sure I needed at the time, she would close her dissertations with a sigh and a “Well, what do I know? I trust you to separate the wheat from the chaff.” Cue eye roll number two.

Leaving behind the days of my youth, I moved forward into the adult world with my eye on my passions. I’ve always been a creatively minded person, with my hands continuously dabbling in music, writing, illustration, and graphic design. And if you are a person even remotely involved with these practices, you know about the unfun part of putting your work out in the open; listening to critique.

It can be gut wrenching to have created something, feel especially proud of it, publish it for the world to see, then have someone find something wrong with it. Even if you’re looking for someone to find something wrong with it in order to get better, it still can sting in a way few other things can.

Unfortunately for us, it seems that our brains are working against us in that regard, whether we want it to or not. In an article published for BBC, psychologists Robert Nash and Naomi Winstone explain how, in many scientific reports, people would rather ignore reality, exaggerate their own good qualities, and shift blame onto the one critiquing than accept any comments that could bruise their good perceptions of themselves.

And to the Christian, this comes as no surprise that this is in our very nature. The Bible talks over and over again about the dangers of putting too much stock in one’s self, the very definition of the word “pride”. Pride has been labelled as one of the Seven Deadly sins, and the Scriptures are pretty clear about how God feels about pride;

“Scoffer” is the name of the arrogant, haughty man who acts with arrogant pride.
– Proverbs 21:24

The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rock, in your lofty dwelling, who say in your heart, “Who will bring me down to the ground?”
– Obadiah 1:3

Haughty eyes and a proud heart, the lamp of the wicked, are sin. – Proverbs 21:4

If you’re saying to yourself right now, “Whoa whoa whoa, Josie… I’m a Christian, I know pride should be avoided, especially in my walk with God. But don’t you think it’s a little much to be saying that feeling good about my own work is prideful? I should like my own stuff, right?” And by all means, like your own stuff! That’s a place many artists would love to be. But you shouldn’t be at that place at the expense of feeling wrathful toward people critiquing you.

But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
– Matthew 5:22

And oftentimes, we come to this place unwittingly, usually as a result of mistaken identity. In my journeys through the artistic realms, I have found that most artists would say that they struggle far more with insecurity than with pride. They have poured their hearts and souls into every piece of work they have made, and all they want is for people to like their work, and in turn, themselves. It is this mentality that causes artistic types to interpret critiques of their work as personal attacks on their self-worth, a self-worth that has been wrongfully placed in the work of their hands as opposed to their status as beloved of the Creator. Another form of pride to be sure, to try to define your personhood apart from the God who loves you.

So now we’re back to square one. No matter what we do, we are still prideful humans who think too highly of ourselves and the works of our hands. Even for the most tempered, even-keeled artist, it is difficult to prevent ourselves from feeling defensive when we seek out negative comments, even if we want to use them to make our work better. So what should we do?

“Separate the wheat from the chaff”.

Motherly wisdom always proves to be right in the end.

There are two necessary steps one must take in order to properly separate the wheat from the chaff;

  1. Take everything in.
  2. See what stays.

To understand this further, come with me to a wheat farm. It doesn’t matter which farm it is, who is running the farm or how they choose to harvest, because no matter where you go, the process is very similar. First, the farmer brings in the harvest. It does not matter how abundant or scant the yield is that year. They cut everything from the field and take everything in. And they want to, in order to pull in as much yield as possible so they can make as much profit as possible.

Second, the farmer places everything he has gathered into some sort of device. These devices can look very different, but their intent in the same. They stir up all the stalks and heads of grain that have come in, tossing them around in the air. Since the wheat grains are heavier, they bounce back to the bottom of the device and stay within it. Because the husks, shells, and straw surrounding it don’t weigh much more than a feather, they fly away with the wind or the blasting air of an industrial machine.

As artists, we must to the same thing in order to obtain the life-giving knowledge found in critiques. We first must take in everything. And I mean everything. Every helpful comment from a knowledgeable teacher, and every “f*ck you” from a random internet troll. Everything must be taken into account in order to get the most out of every statement. We need to remember that help can come from any part of the harvest, and we should not ignore grain left out in the field because it seems like there’s a scant yield from far away. Since we are hard-wired to reject statements that makes us feel bad about ourselves, our initial negative reactions and snap judgments cannot and should not be trusted. Any inclination to listen to those off-the-cuff rejections is our pride and misguided self-preservation getting in the way. 

Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. – Philippians 2:3

Before destruction a man’s heart is haughty, but humility comes before honor.
– Proverbs 18:12

The second thing we must do is to see what stays. This can be a complicated task, since everybody does this process a little differently. You will need to do some tweaking to find the way that works for you.

Do your best to return to a sober mind. If a negative comment is causing you emotional discomfort, ask yourself clarifying questions; “What about that specifically makes me feel bad?” “Why does it bother me?” “What part of me does it bother?” “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” If something is really bothering you, talk to a friend or loved one about it in order to sort it out. It is by working through the emotional discomfort of highly negative statements that you will be able to let the chaff of negative comments float away. Once you get good at this, taking in and letting go of unhelpful, disdainful comments will become easier and easier.

Once your mind has been quieted, you will notice something interesting has happened. Because you put aside your pride and self-defensiveness and accepted all comments as potential harvest, you have blown away the chaff and are now able to see which critiques can be used as actual nuggets of nourishment for your artistic growth. But even this can become an interesting task if you get some comments that contradict each other. For example, I recently performed Genesis 1 for a class at college. One written critique I got from a classmate said that I should have gestured more during my performance. But another critique I got said that I gestured too much and should have let the story unfold. So now what do I do? How do I find the comments that are not just good, but best for me?

Here’s where we do our quality check with more clarifying questions, this time regarding the critiques themselves; “Do I know who said this?” “How experienced in my field is this person?” “How could this statement apply to my artistic growth?” “How could a different statement apply?” Toss all of the comments around in your mind. Test the critiques against your own artistic journey. By quietly mulling over these grains of wheat you have discovered, you will find that the most nourishing brain food will be the stuff that you use to further refine your craft over and over again.

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. – Romans 12:3

But each one must examine his own work, and then he will have reason for boasting in regard to himself alone, and not in regard to another. – Galatians 6:4

Well, as is usually the case when children come into their own, it is with quiet awe that I can say that my mother’s statement on accepting critique proved to be true. And I hope that in reading this article, you were also able to take it all in, separate the wheat from the chaff, and let whatever grains of truth you find here nourish your soul. If you can let go of the useless chaff, you will find that the heaviness of the critiques you need will stick to the bottom and impact your artistic quality for the better.

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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.

no plateaus here | the artist and doubt

“To believe with certainty, somebody said, one has to begin by doubting.”

I remember vividly the sensation brought by reading that quote – of being both jarred and strangely comforted. I had been reading Shelden Vanauken’s “A Severe Mercy,” drawn into a world where a poetic mind spoke honestly about darkness, death, loss, love, and the harshness of divine mercy. The book was stunning (read it, if you haven’t), but the quote itself started me off on a long line of inquiry that is still being directed and rephrased and remade.

What is the place of doubt in the Christian heart and experience? More pertinently to us, what is the place of doubt in the life of the Christian artist?

Living in the question

As artists, we question. Mostly “why” laced with “who” and including the odd “what,” our work constantly illustrates what we cannot rectify. It was Madeleine L’Engle who said, “Our truest response to the irrationality of the world is to paint or sing or write, for only in such response do we find truth.” Dance, visual art, drama, writing, music, et cetera, often seeks to show either a picture of what is, or an idea of what could be (sometimes including the horrific alongside the hopeful). As Christians, it’s particularly illustrative of our belief and of our struggle within those beliefs.

I’m thankful that we are slowly coming to a place in the Body of Christ where the idea of Christian doubt is less and less the colloquial boogeyman. The Psalmist came to God with stronger suspicion and angst than anyone I know, and he got in the Bible for it. Even Christ never condemned a man for his doubt – He condemns him for his unbelief. Our incertitude often flows out of a deep, honest desire to trust, but a desire who’s answers have been found wanting, for one reason or another. In truth, Christ is the only One able to answer our qualms – even though He often doesn’t answer in the way we’d like (but all that’s another post for another day…).

If we refuse to acknowledge doubt, much less battle in it, we risk the falsehood of blind security. We look for the place where we (in our current frustrated and imperfect state) could become “enlightened;” where we have at last reached a full understanding of the things we had, until now, not satisfactorily mastered. Where we don’t need to investigate because we finally “get” it all.

It took until my fourth year at Moody Bible Institute to understand that I was seeking for just such a plateau. During my Systematic Theology class, some lecture or conversation or reading (I don’t remember which) stirred in my mind the understanding of looking for perfection. A place where one comes to the end of works well-done, where there need to be no more effort; “heaven” in the most boring sense of the word.

It’s appalling, actually. Here I was, sitting quietly in my seat, unknowingly convinced that all the grace and freedom I talked about was underlined with the firm belief that you can work yourself to a place where there will be no more conflict, disquiet, or effort. That you can perform your “works” so well that you make it to the absence of strife.

Besides that being an obvious theological mistake, it’s also a robbing of our joy through enrichment. In this life, we have messy things that constantly tug at us – relationships, ideologies, historical events, sins, convictions; contention in one thing or another. In bumping up against all that, somehow, we are made to mature.

Living in the mystery

While the absence of interactive relationship would mean a lessening of conflict, it would not result in peace. As human beings, we continue to find the qualms – even without the other bodies and souls who make it that much more evident. Running from times of uncertainty, however, will not ward them away. The vacancy of growth is death.

When we refuse to embrace the uncomfortable rub (within or without), the only alternative is stagnation and the extinction of our art. Without questioning, we cannot make art, and in order to query, we must admit there is much we do not know, even cannot know. The presence of the incomprehensible is essential. Paradox is a constant throughout our Christian faith; our spirituality is rife with reality that we cannot, in any way, satisfactorily answer. Trinity, sovereignty, union, sacrament, eternity – all of these are theological language for “you won’t understand it, so keep believing and enjoying it.” It’s crazy – something we artists should know plenty about.

Living in the mess

Let me take a moment to say that, in its essence, our doubt and our art are meant to be experienced in community. I know it’s at risk of becoming a buzzword for our generation, but community is an essential part of the struggle and gritty progress through contention. If you live in conflict while alone, it’s dissociative to your being. You split against yourself and have nothing to patch the hole.

In community, you experience the peeved reality of others’ quirks and questions, their idiosyncrasies and annoying bits. Those people are often the source of collision as well as the cushion for the blow. Thank God it is a mess and will not leave you the same as when you came.

Donald Miller says this in his book “Blue Like Jazz” (which, incidentally, has a lot of marvelous things to say about paradox, belief and distrust): “When you live on your own for a long time… your personality changes…There is an entire world inside yourself, and if you let yourself, you can get so deep inside it you will forget the way to the surface. Other people keep our souls alive, just like food and water does with our body.”

In His sovereignty, the God we love and serve helps our finite minds haggle and fail in our pursuit of truth. G.K. Chesterton said “The fatal metaphor of progress, which means leaving things behind us, has utterly obscured the real idea of growth, which means leaving things inside us.” As artists, especially as Christian creators, we should (we must) live in the world of growth – in the fracas-ridden ground of suspense and uncertainty. Not always uncertain, but embracing the paradox in our faith and the strength of our God, especially in our times of doubt.

I encourage you to let the tears and the confusions lead you to questions – ask, read, talk, pray. Realize that you are growing and will continue to mature to the tune of impossibilities. Be honest, and let those things fuel you onward.

questions worth asking

Confession: this summer, I walked into an art gallery for the first time.

Second confession: I loved it.

Third confession: I didn’t know why.

I’m a self-admitted art dilettante, with experience largely of the history-books-and-billboards kind. Walking into a gallery and realizing, two hours later, that I didn’t want to leave was quite unexpected. Walking out of the gallery and being completely unable to articulate why was even more unpredictable.

What was the last painting that caught your breath? When was the last time you walked out of a movie? What was the last book you didn’t finish – or did finish and promptly chucked at the wall? What was the last line of poetry that demanded to be spoken aloud simply so you could taste the words? Art is meant to seduce, provoke, pierce, bind, and unleash…but only as far as our willingness to engage with it.

We are creatives, not simply consumers. We create because it is inherent to us as bearers of the imago dei, but we consume because we live in a created world. What we consume informs what we create, and the processing of it is the bridge between the two. While for me it was the storied glory of the Scottish National Gallery, for you it may be the gut-wrenching grip of book hangover or the starry-eyed stumbling after an intricate movie. What was the last experience that begged to be processed and not simply consumed? As artists and souls in development, choosing to engage further is crucial to our growth. Can we dig past our first impressions and engage with the nature of that which we consume?

What you hated – why? Was it twisted, uncomfortable, badly-portrayed, or confused?

What you loved – why? Was its siren-song heard by a longing that should be encouraged or kept in check?

When you meet truth – will you know it? When you see beauty, can you tell me why it has captivated you? When you meet ugliness, can you tell me why it is ugly and not simply unique?

When we react to art, can we take a moment to ask why? Why couldn’t we put the book down until the last page? Why couldn’t we tear our eyes away from the spectacle – whether grotesque or wooing? Our experiences with bad art can and should be as formative as our encounters with the soul-enriching kind. While we should seek and laud the best kind of art, if we don’t learn to process the art we encounter, we may not recognize the best kind when it comes. Perhaps our responses reveal that we never dug deeply enough to see the creator’s intent. Perhaps our eyes need to see a little better to understand the honesty of horror or the triumph of ordinary life. Perhaps our moral compasses need an adjustment when we realize that what desires of our soul are being fed. Perhaps, when we stand before a self-portrait and marvel at the season of life captured, we will know better how to articulate why, and in doing so, nurture the imago dei we confess with our lives and our art.

It’s much the same as our faith: we can settle for the beauty of the sunset, or uncover what it says of our Creator. Eventually, maybe we will learn something of ourselves, for what God is this who can tear the sky with thunder and paint it gold at dusk? And who are we that we can taste both?

thorns and thistles

For the next two days I’ll be miles away from the nearest piano, working with a client to help them better configure their software and design good customer service processes. I’m writing this blog post from the plane. To be honest, airplanes and conference rooms don’t feel like the most artistic environment, but such is life. Or such is my life, anyway.

These days, most of my art is developed for Sunday mornings. While I work full-time in the IT industry, I spend my free time pouring into the life and love of my local church. It’s a small church, and so I serve in a variety of capacities – on the college & 20’s leadership, the women’s ministry board, and as the pianist. Many weeks, it’s a challenge to find the time to prepare something thoughtful for prelude, and I find myself recycling selections more often than my artistic ideals permit. It’s been a couple summers since I added anything new to my classical repertoire, and my piano degree is now a special interest addition to my professional byline rather than the highlight.

There was a time I would have considered this division of my attentions to be the ultimate failure. Hopes and dreams of graduate school and full-time work in music were dashed with the practical realities of ministry commitments and the financial provision of my surprising career in IT. From a distance, I watched former classmates pursue their artistic inclinations in more wholehearted ways and found myself struggling to find the time to prepare the music for our church Christmas concert in between folding my laundry and planning a women’s ministry event.

And yet, the richness of life in this season has far surpassed what I could have expected from the artist’s journey. Paul Westermeyer’s theory of good church musicianship has served well to frame my vision for art in this season: living among the people and giving voice to their song. I’ve lived this truth, and found that my best art hasn’t been produced in the practice room, but in this life among the people of God.

While some art is profound in its universality and its ability to touch millions, other art is intended for a specific context of people. I won’t pretend to know which art requires more or less care and artistry, but the art I am called to is specific. Each week as I prepare to play, the very real needs of this body of believers influences my musical selections. With the body, my music laments over death and church conflict and rejoices in the blessings we have together in Christ. Playing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” after a recent death or a Rachmaninoff elegy during a Good Friday service simultaneously grants music to the people’s song and provides a context that makes the art more accessible.

In this way, I’ve come to see my very splintering as making me a more effective artist, not less. I struggle to find time to choose a piece for communion on Sunday not because things are in the way of my art, but because they are enhancing it – because I’ve been communing with the saints all week, working in the same thorns and thistles as my brothers and sisters and sharing in their lives.

discovering Murakami

For me, as an artist who is also a mother, I am often on the lookout for ways to invite my kids to join me in interacting with art of all types. More and more, I am learning the value of experiencing something as a family that is brand new to all of us, not just the kids. I find that my kids – each of whom have wildly different attention spans and artistic interest levels (ages 13, 10, 8 and 5) – will engage more with me when they don’t feel like I’m coming at them as an expert on something (life lesson, anyone??). Modern art is an ideal medium to engage with kids.  We can pop over to the Art Institute and marvel at Seurat in the Impressionist wing, or stand like ants beneath the Renaissance masters, but inevitably the contemporary stuff immediately engages my 21st century (iGen, is it?) babies.

Housed at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the Murakami (b. 1962) exhibit, The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg*, opened surprisingly simply:  a blue velvet curtain with a single star gave way to a series of three small square panels in solid red, yellow and blue. Immediately, my oldest son chimed in with, “Wait a minute. What is this stuff? I could paint that! This stuff is in a museum!” My daughter offered, “this curtain is like in a play before it starts.” Aha. Yes. Good! They asked me what I thought, and I offered that I wasn’t exactly sure, but if I had to guess, I would say he is bringing us to a simple starting point — building expectation, excitement. I was learning/guessing/processing right alongside them.

Those primary colors and curtain were a genesis to the exhibit and indeed, Murakami’s whole career. Powerful opening, really.

As we wandered through the rooms, Murakami brought us from those simple elements to masterful and complex intersections of modern and ancient, Eastern and Western, high + low art. What he does is nothing short of masterful.

The exhibit continued to open up into room after room of what Murakami is really known for; his “superflat” style, noisily intersecting traditional high art with flashy commercialism. This can be seen in his collaborations with Kanye West (“Graduation” cover), Louis Vitton, Pharrell Williams (“It Girl” video).

The earlier works show genesis and development of recognizable characters like Mr. DOB, the trippy Kaikai Kiki flowers (my daughter’s favorite), into a mid-career phase of abstraction.

These were my favorite pieces. Incredible color, scale and development. The piece we hung out the longest on together was 727 (1996). Mimicking Japanese screen paintings, the piece shows Murakami’s beloved Mr. DOB as a time traveler traversing Asian art history. The kids didn’t need any help from me to see what it was trying to do.

Murakami’s later works come away from the playful characters of earlier works and instead explore topics of death and spirituality; particularly the legend of the arhats — a band of Buddhist monks who roamed the land in an effort to heal and comfort people. My most empathetic 10 year old was particularly taken with the pieces in this series, lingering and studying each one closely. They spoke to him.

Perhaps the thing that stood out the most to me about the aptly-named The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg exhibit was this relentless sense of self-discovery and reinvention. Murakami shows us his process—one that isn’t afraid to ask questions, to learn and reevaluate direction and to change. His looking forward never loses sense of what came before. If only the same could be said of each of us!

*”The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg comes from a Japanese folk saying that hints at this process of regeneration and reflects a biological fact: an octopus in distress will chew off a damaged leg to insure survival, knowing that a new one will grow in its place. Similarly, Murakami often feeds off his own work and Japanese history in order to explore our contemporary world.” – from the exhibit

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.

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.

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!’