Monday, December 11, 2006

The Road and Transcendence

As some of you know, I am currently writing my Master’s thesis on Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. My basic thesis is that although many have read or reacted to the book as a work of nihilism, the novel is actually hopeful and preoccupied with the existence and/or voice of God. Some critics, like Harold Bloom, have been arguing for some time now that Blood Meridian will be remembered as one of the greatest works of American fiction, perhaps the best for the 20th century. So as you can imagine, I have been scouring all of McCarthy’s works and influences for support for my thesis.

The Road is McCarthy’s latest novel and is in some ways even better than Blood Meridian. In the novel, McCarthy gives us essentially the same dark, brutal, inhuman world of Blood Meridian and some of his earlier works, but this time there are very clear and moving points of hope. This hope is centered around the interaction of a father and his son as they attempt to survive in a post-apocalyptic world by walking down the road. They encounter cannibals (a constant threat), harsh weather, utter desolation, ugliness, and starvation. Yet McCarthy crafts the relationship between these two characters such that neither they, nor the reader feels hopeless. In fact, there are many Biblical references and even a few discussions about God in the book. However, the last two pages seem to leave the hope the Man and Boy have open to interpretation. On the last page, a women tells the boy “that the breath of God was his [the father] breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time” (241). She says this in response to the boy as he prayers to his father rather than God, who he can’t seem to pray to. The question thus becomes, is McCarthy advocating a humanist/existentialist religion where “transcendence” (the materialist equivalent at least) lies exclusively in each person and eternity is merely our act of remembering all that has gone before us, or is there an actual God in this novel? Or a third possibility?

What I would like to suggest is that the end of The Road should not be interpreted as a claim for an existentialist pseudo-philosophy, but rather by examining the relationship between the Man and the Boy we can see that McCarthy is clearly making a claim for transcendence in the novel. Specifically, the theories of Peter Berger, Professor of Sociology at Rutgers, from his book A Rumor of Angels will be applied to The Road in an attempt to explain the irrational, unquenchable hope in the Man and the Boy.

As my lovely wife pointed out to me, probably the most repeated word in The Road is “okay,” and it is used in various meanings. On one level, “okay” merely means “alright,” “sure,” or “fine,” but it’s important to keep in mind that it can also mean “everything is in order; tomorrow or the next moment will be alright.” Although I could have found several passages in the novel which have this layered meaning of “okay”, I choose the following one and leave it up to the reader to find others:
“Are you still scared?
We’re okay.
Okay.” (172).
Peter Berger’s essential argument is that there are what he calls “signals of transcendence” in our lives, and in “prototypical human gestures” which point to a supernatural element to existence. By “signals of transcendence,” Berger means: “phenomena that are to be found within the domain of our “natural” reality but that appear to point beyond that reality. In other words, I am not using transcendence in a technical philosophical sense but literally, as the transcending of the nature, everyday world that I earlier identified with the “supernatural.” (53). He breaks down these “prototypical human gestures” into several foundational arguments; I will use two of these arguments to attempt to better understand McCarthy’s novel: the argument from hope, and the argument from ordering. Both of these arguments are related to the use of the word “Okay” in The Road.

Throughout The Road the Man and the Boy are struggling to survive, but what is remarkable is that they keep trying. On one level at least the father has hope for survival because of the boy, in fact we learn early in the novel that his wife claimed that the Man was only kept from death by the Boy, a claim that is not stated without a sense of condemnation or contempt. It is much harder, however, to justify the hope that the Boy has. The Boy was born after the catastrophe that demolished civilization, which means there was no culture to instill in him a desire to live and a hope for the future; no church, school, government, counselor, psychologist, doctor, teacher, TV, poem, novel, song, or philosophy. If anything, everything that the past culture stood for must seem senseless and wrong to the Boy who now sees only the ruins. One cannot believe that his parents taught him to have this hope since any claim for hope from his father would be countered by the glaring absence of a mother who believed that there were no reasons left to live. Neither religion, philosophy, citizenship, nor family could have instilled in the Boy a belief in the possibility for a better future that would be strong enough to withstand the all but unspeakable horrors he faced in the world. Nature, meanwhile, offers little help either. The world the Boy is born and raised in is completely hostile, ugly (at one point the Man laments the loss of beauty), and lacks even the basic pleasures and comforts. Which brings us to what I believe is the heart of the novel and Camus’s famous question for philosophy: why live?

While the Man has all of Western history and its influence and the preservation of his son to keep him going, the Boy has not been nurtured nor taught by nature to have a hope in tomorrow, yet he does. He constantly is convinced that things will be ultimately, “okay,” although he does have moments of fear. While certainly part of the boy’s motivation is the love of his father, there is more to his love, and it is here that Berger enables us to understand the importance of the Boy’s belief that everything will be “okay:”

“Human existence is always oriented toward the future. Man exists by constantly extending his being toward the future, both in his consciousness and in his activity….An essential dimension of this ‘futurity’ of man is hope. It is through hope that men overcome the difficulties of any given here and now. And it is through hope that men find meaning in the face of extreme suffering” (61).

The Boy’s hope defies rationality except as a signal of transcendence. Rationally, we must side with the Boy’s mother and ask the Man to kill his son, but hope persists. In addition to a hope in the future that keeps them both moving, they also enact one of Berger’s “prototypical human gestures” throughout the novel as the Man reassures his son that everything is okay. Consider all the moments in the novel were the father comforts the child in light of Berger’s argument from ordering:

“A child wakes up in the night, perhaps from a bad dream, and finds himself surrounded by darkness, alone, beset by nameless threats. At such a moment the contours of trusted reality are blurred or invisible, and in the terror of incipient chaos the child cries out for his mother. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that, at this moment, the mother is being invoked as a high priestess of protective order. It is she…who has the power to banish the chaos and to restore the benign shape of the world….She will speak or sing to the child, and the content of this communication will invariably be the same—“Don’t be afraid—everything is in order, everything is all right.

All of this, of course, belongs to the most routine experiences of life and does not depend upon any religious preconceptions. Yet this common scene raises a far from ordinary question, which immediately introduced a religious dimension: Is the mother lying to the child? The answer, in the most profound sense, can be “no” only if there is some truth in the religious interpretation of human experience. Conversely, if the ‘natural’ is the only reality there is, the mother is lying to the child—lying out of love, to be sure, and obviously not lying to the extent that her reassurance is grounded in the fact of this love—but, in the final analysis, lying all the same. Why? Because the reassurance, transcending the immediately present two individuals and their situation, implies a statement about reality as such” (54-55).”

It is my claim that the Man and the Boy’s hope and belief in order is “a statement about reality as such,” a statement that ultimately there is hope and order, although perhaps not in this life. In addition, this hope and order is transcendent; it is not a hope contingent on human relationships, a mere hope in our ability to really love and remember someone; rather, McCarthy seems to be clearly claiming that through human relationships we can find innate in us a hope for the future and a belief in ultimate order that is a signal of a transcendence beyond this life. I’ll close with this scene from the novel which again shows the character’s unquenchable faith:

The boy suggests to his dad that there are people alive somewhere, and his father tells him “no.”:
“I don’t know what we’re doing, he (the boy) said.
The man started to answer. But he didn’t. After a while he said: There are people. There are people and we’ll find them. You’ll see” (206).

(It is important to note that the boy eventually does see. Not only does the Man have hope for tomorrow, that hope is not unfounded).

Perhaps if anyone is interested (not that that has stopped me before…) I’ll write a more theological explication of McCarthy’s idea of God in every man, an idea found in The Road and The Sunset Limited.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Banality and Abstract Art and Scienticism and Pinker

The Chronicle of Higher Education posted an article by Kirk Varnedoe, a professor of art history at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, N.J. The article is a concise, but poignant definition of abstract/modern art and its purpose, role, and meaning(lessness). Part of what made this post so compelling for me was that Varnedoe does something in the article that works along with a general observation I have been trying to sort out. Varnedoe quite consciously defines a role of art that works contrary to the meaningfulness that humans innately ascribe to art, and in order to somehow reconcile his belief in the ultimate meaninglessness of art with this human imperative to make art meaningful Varnedoe resorts to a linguistic slight-of-hand in which he utilizes religious terminology and all of the connotations therein to fill his nihilistic aesthetic with the illusion of meaningful meaninglessness:
Abstraction has been less a search for the ultimately meaningful ... than a recurrent push for the temporarily meaningless: that is, things that are found not often in exotic realms but rather on the edges of banality, familiarity, and the man-made world. It is the production of forms of order that are not recognizable as order, but vehicles of feeling that appear utterly dumb. Abstract art is a symbolic game, and it is akin to all human games: You have to get into it, risk and all, and this takes a certain act of faith. But what kind of faith? Not faith in absolutes, not a religious kind of faith. A faith in possibility, a faith not that we will know something finally, but a faith in not knowing, a faith in our ignorance, a faith in our being confounded and dumbfounded, a faith fertile with possible meaning and growth.

The only analogy that Varnedoe can find to explain the purposefulness he places in the act of "making" is the way one has faith, and although he specifically claims that he is not advocating a religious-like faith, he cannot expect either himself nor his audience to be able to divorce their understanding of "faith" from the connotations raised from the history of Judeo-Christian influence on religious thought. While he might desire to craft a system of art that operates outside of meaning and absolute value, on a fundamental level he lacks the very language to make such a claim. Sometime perhaps I'll expound on how I believe this principle is very useful in exploring much existential philosophy as well.

In a bit of utterly unrelated reading, Steven Pinker, the noted Harvard professor of psychology, has written an article on the recent Harvard Report of the Committee on General Education. In it, Pinker exposes his typical scientism, dismissing the language of the report which calls for the education of students on issues of the potential dangers of science (nuclear weapons, biological warfare agents, electronic eavesdropping, and damage to the environment) and ranting about the absurdity of putting "Reason and Faith" in the same sentence. Pinker argues that all issues of religion are not fit for the university and that giving religion importance in univeristies "is an American anachronism." At the heart of Pinker's diatribe is the belief that faith is useless to discovering truth on any level:
...the juxtaposition of the two words makes it sound like “faith” and “reason” are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing, and we have to help students navigate between them. But universities are about reason, pure and simple. Faith—believing something without good reasons to do so—has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these. Imagine if we had a requirement for “Astronomy and Astrology” or “Psychology and Parapsychology.”
Notice how Pinker equivocates faith with pseudoscience, such an absurd and irrational comparison must either be blamed on dishonesty or a fundamental misunderstanding about the role and definition of faith or astrology.

I'm done.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

My First Impressions in English 580: Ethnic Literature

These are some thoughts I wrote during my first and/or second class in English 580. Get out of them what you will.

We are not psycologists, we should not pretend to be.

Without moral foundation, this entire discussion is literally meaningless.

Absurd generalities.

The power struggle is everything. On what basis?

Sloppy, stroppy scholarship.

All that's left is history and politics. But history is contrived and politics is the science of oppression.

Establishing perfect definitions, which is impossible and contradictory.

Fiction should not be realist in action, but "as it should be" which means giving the oppressed a voice and agency. But fiction must also be realistic in regard to character.

No simplification.

-Kinder and Gentler
-Increases happiness in the world (but only as an aside)

"Situate Authors"-no one speaks for all, just their gender, sex, identity, and/or ethnicity.

"Perhaps difference helps the nation" Perhaps?

We have to politicize the text.

We have to include politics and power.

"The self/other binary is wrong!"...said the self.

Labels demean, but stereotypes disenfranchisement.

All men stereotype women.
It is absolutely wrong that men create an absolute definition of women.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Another SoberMinded Album Review

Here's the latest review of our album:
"In the end, SoberMinded reminds us that Christian rap is not a cheesy alternative, but fulfilling and skillful hip-hop music that places purpose and meaning above material goods. With a more acoustic approach production-wise, the rappers/producers provide an overall optimistic perspective on life and successfully relate the teachings of Christianity to modern issues. While, content-wise, it is not for everyone, anyone can appreciate the chemistry between the two MCs and their lyrical abilities. It is an album worth hearing and provides easy transition from mainstream to more "spiritually minded" music.

Music Vibes: 7 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 8 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 7.5 of 10"

Read the Entire Review here

You can buy the album on our myspace page through Paypal or through the Maddtapes online store.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

An Unusual Topic for me But....

I have to make this short because I'm swamped with work, but I had to post something. Read this Times article and notice how the Times will comfortably allow scientists to posit an "intelligent designer" if that designer is some computer engineer and the world is actually just a dream. The world is "fine tuned", therefore there must be a designer, therefore it's probably some dude in his parents basement who has mad programming skills and a Pentium 4000 with a 10000000 Zillahertz processor. This magazine gives more credit to a "The Sims: Real World" hypothesis to explain our universe than the idea of God. Could you imagine the Times giving an Intelligent Design scientist the same space to talk about the fine tuning of our universe? And notice that the article concludes with a lone scientist challenging this "super-computer" idea by saying that the computer would have to be impossibly big. If this were someone like Guillermo Gonzalez who would argue that the designer could actually be (dare we say it?) GOD, there is no way the Times would have only one scientist rebutting the argument. Note the absurd lengths mainstream media and scientists will go to to explain away signs of design. One final thought, could it be that this, absurd postulation about reality is much easier for people to accept than the existence of God because a computer program makes no demands upon our lives and is, in fact, "cool", while accepting God's existence demands everything of us. Ok, enough of my rambling, read this, it's short:

Top scientist asks: is life all just a dream?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

New SoberMinded Album Review

Check out the following review for our album "Points, Thoughts, and Stories":

"Easily among the best independent and underground hip-hop releases of the year. It pushes intellectual and moral points while remaining relevant to people of any or every religion. I'd love to take a couple days and write a full review on it, but am way too tied up with all the music we're getting nowadays. Either way, this is a permanent fixture on my iPod, so I highly recommend checking it out whether or not you're a fan of christian rap..."
Read Entire Review

For more info check out SoberMinded's myspace page.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

L.A. Journal Article on Hip-Hop

I (non) just started writing for the online journal "L.A. Journal". They just published my first article on the L.A. Hip-Hop scene. It will likely start a bunch of debate, but here it is. I interviewed Subtitle and the Simple Citizens for the article. Click, read, and enjoy.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Entertainment or Art: A Christian Response to Apathy

I know it has been a long time since I last posted here. I just finished putting grades in for my first college class. Overall it was a good experience, although I feel that I failed to make the impact upon the students that I had hoped to. In the education community, and in academia in general, there has been much discussion on critical thinking skills. After teaching my first semester I have to admit that many of my students simply lacked the critical thinking skills to properly analyze issues. What I’m going to present in this post is an argument for why I believe a redefining of the word “art” could help solve this problem in critical thinking, particularly for Christians.

Typically, Christians approach the world (i.e. the secular) in one of two ways: total rejection, or indifference. Those whole totally reject the world often legalistically identify certain elements of the world as evil and therefore reject them and anything associated with them as fundamentally evil. An example of this would be the Good Fight. At this site you can order videotapes which allegedly reveal the demonic truth about Rock and Roll and other music. Essentially they take quotes out of context and/or point to sinfully lifestyles as evidence of satan’s presence in the musician’s work. Their purpose is to identify sinful and potentially dangerous elements of the world and warn Christians to avoid them. Those who are indifferent to the secular tend to view rejectionists as paranoid and reactionary. Instead, they believe that we have the freedom to enjoy things in the world. If man is created in the image of God, and God is a creator, then man’s creations must be at least partially a reflection of Him (they reason).

Of course most Christians live somewhere between these two extremes, but what I would like to suggest is that we as believers should avoid viewing the secular in terms of totally evil or perfectly acceptable. In light of God’s call for us to focus on what is praiseworthy, to be wise as serpents, and to love our neighbor, I believe that Christians should abandon the notion of entertainment altogether and replace it with art.

Phi 4:8 Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable--if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise--dwell on these things.

Whether in definition or connotation, our conception of “entertainment” contains the idea of acceptance. When we want to be entertained, we do not question the ideas, themes, messages, images, or concepts being presented to us. Entertainment is our time to relax and put down our guard. Entertainment is our right as Americans to stop thinking and be amused.

Those who tend to reject the secular entirely combat this problem with entertainment by condemning anything not blatantly Christian. But this, unfortunately, comes with its own set of problems. Because this response (as seen on the usually means finding surface level conflicts with Christianity (i.e. profanity, sexual allusions, drug abuse, etc…) and ignores the deeper philosophical implications (i.e. humanism, relativism, materialism, secular positivism…), it fails on many levels: 1. it fails to address the true problems for the sake of the lost; 2. it fails to identify the true spiritual challenge in order to protect the church; 3. it fails to recognize what is true, honorable, just, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy all for the sake of what is not pure; 4. it privileges the simple, shallow, and obvious in art and condemns the complex as suspicious, and 5. it allows for poor workmanship in Christian art by eliminating competition, discouraging criticism of any art labeled “ministry”, and privileging simple art.

The indifferent approach to the secular deals with the problem of entertainment by ignoring it. This view simply argues that TV, music, movies, and the Internet are all simple things made for enjoyment and fun. To them, people who get all up in arms over entertainment have too much time on their hands and are simply outdated fundamentalists. As with the reactionary view, those who are indifferent to entertainment suffer from several problems: 1. they encourage poor workmanship by merely accepting what is given to them as good; 2. they allow subtle, yet extremely dangerous ideas into their minds; and 3. they are treating faith and life as separate.

In our conception of the word “art” is the idea of critical thought. If you go to a museum you do not just look at the pretty pictures, instead you thoughtfully stare at them and attempt to search them for meaning and purpose. Compare this to your attitude and mindset when you go see a movie. I would suggest that Christians should abandon the word entertainment with its concept of mindless relaxation and replace it with “art”. I believe that if we were to do this, it would solve many problems:

1. Since the idea of “art” includes critical thinking, if believers viewed everything as art (TV, Media, Music…) then they would be more likely to focus on both the surface and deeper messages sent by the works. Where those who are reactionary struggle to identify the deeper issues of a work of art, and the indifferent Christians fail to identify anything, calling everything art would demand that we examine the themes, belief systems, philosophies, and ideas portrayed. This of course depends on Christians actively reminding themselves that art is not the same as entertainment.

2. Following from point 1, Christians would be themselves more aware of the philosophical struggles of their neighbors and the lost, and would therefore be better able to minister and love them. Additionally, they would be able to identify and reject any subtle challenges to their faith and the Truth.

3. Christians would be able to recognize and appreciate what is worthy of praise without having to abandoning it as totally evil. When we fail to acknowledge that there is evil in the world we sin against God and prepare ourselves for a great fall; when we fail to acknowledge that there is beauty in the world, even beauty made by the hands of fallen man, then we sin against God and do not love our neighbor.

4. Christian art would be improved because there would be a privileging of complexity, the competition of the secular, and an emphasis upon excellence. If Christians were all viewing what we now call entertainment as “art”, then a desire for truly excellent works would naturally develop.

5. Finally, but perhaps most importantly, it would establish Christ’s Lordship over the whole of life (to steal Schaeffer’s phrase). The very concept of entertainment suggests a shutting off of the brain, which is something that no Christian can do righteously at any point on this fallen world. To believe that there is an action that we can do in this life without examining our hearts and the action against what we know is True from the Word of God is to suggest that all of the world is not fallen and/or that Christ does not belong in every area of our lives. But if we consider everything as art, then we can say that everything should be judged according to the Truth and Christ is given His proper place, at the seat of the throne of our lives.

In conclusion, if we view TV, movies, the Internet, literature, magazines, music, video games (both secular and Christian) etc…as art, we will be better prepared to understand how to love our neighbor, protect ourselves from false doctrine, and admonish our artist brethren to good artistic works.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Holy Hip-Hop

In the last ten years or so music has been experiencing a major shift, one from the privileging of Rock music to Hip-Hop. Christian music has likewise felt this shift, albeit a bit slower, and we are starting to see the rise of several Hip-Hop artists who work in the Christian music market. While there have always been some good Hip-Hop artists who were Christian, most of them were relatively unknown as Rock has long been the dominant genre in the Christian market. Now, however, this has begun to change, in part due to the marketability of “Gospel Rap” and “Holy Hip-Hop”. And along with this shift have come the problems that have traditionally faced musicians who choose to sell themselves to the Christians market. In this article, I am going to look at some of the major problems that many, if not most, Holy Hip-Hoppers are dealing with; problems that need to be addressed not only for the sake of the art form, but so that we can worship God in Spirit and in Truth. In this discussion I do not mean to imply that all artists who use the title “Holy Hip-Hop” act in a certain way; instead, I only wish to address the concept that works as a foundation for this genre.

In the very name “Holy Hip-Hop” lays the first problem that I believe must be dealt with and it is also the foundation for the others. Perhaps since its earliest forms in the 20th century, Christian musicians have tended to make art that was more or less exclusively aimed at other Christians. While there is nothing in and of itself wrong with making music for other believers (particularly in the case of worship music), this often becomes problematic in the same way that a small gene pool tends to result in poor genes. Many Holy Hip-Hoppers (HHHers from now on), recognize that they need to make music that glorifies God, yet in a way that is accessible to the world, but unfortunately, I believe that many of them do not consider what this requires of them artistically. The difference that many find is one that is superficial (I do not mean this is in a derogatory way necessarily). Evidence for this can be seen in the very title “Holy Hip-Hop” which emphasizes the difference with a claim to holiness. The result is that they are establishing a genre based on a negative: “we are not secular, we are holy hip-hop.” This mindset goes beyond the title too. The focus of many HHHers music is upon stressing the difference rather than simply making art that reflects their worldview. Examples of this would be MCs that constantly talk about the evils of secular or mainstream Hip-Hop, those that mention Christ and God in the same way that secular groups shout out crew or gang names, and those that attempt to take on the prophet persona as they condemn the American Hip-Hop culture (this persona is misguided in that the O.T. prophets were almost exclusively charged with building up and warning the People of God). The name Holy Hip-Hop does not suggest artists who are Christian working within the genre of Hip-Hop, it suggests Christians who are segregating themselves (part of the definition of holy) from Hip-Hop while at the same time making music that sounds the same as those who they are segregating from. The emphasis seems to be upon difference; as if the very point of their art was that they are different from everyone else, which is hardly a reason to make music.

As a result of this isolationist variety of music, many Christian artists have fallen into poor workmanship. Despite being called to do their best at whatever they put their hands to (and many of them actually say in their rhymes that they have been “called” to do just that), they often only produce works which are derivative of secular artists, and in the worst cases this means a very poor imitation. There are many reasons for this. One of which is that the Christian market is simply easier to compete in. If an artists wishes to make it big in the Christian market he/she is competing with far fewer artists than the music industry as a whole. While competition should not drive art, as with everything, it does encourage us to excel. A side effect of this has been that the world perceives Christian artists as incapable of creating works that equal those of unbelievers. And this is truly a tragedy. Instead of being a witness to the world of the power of Christ’s transformative love to create minds capable of great works of art, all of which testify to His glory, often times Holy Hip-Hop is an example of an unimaginative, unredeemed quest for acceptance, fame, and wealth.

Another reason that HHH often is marked with poor workmanship is that they see themselves as an alternative to secular music. Again, instead of making art that reflects the world and life as Christ has created it, the preoccupation becomes making music that will substitute for worldly music. What this leads to is music that sounds almost identical to secular music except for a few key words changed from derogatory terms and profanity to references to Christ and the Spirit and God. HHH in this vein sells very well because it is a “clean” substitute for the world. Usually, however, the Christian artist does a very poor job of copying the music, which just makes a mockery out of the subject matter. But even worse is the blending of music which was created specifically, and explicitly, to carry a message that is anathema to the Gospel with the name of God. At times I struggle to see how this cannot be interpreted as taking the Lord’s name in vain. Now I do not mean that the entire genre of Hip-Hop is fundamentally opposed to the work of Christ (for more on this, read my post on the subject last year), that would be reactionary foolishness. What I do mean is that secular artists choose specific styles of Hip-Hop to express a specific messaging; in this sense the secular artist better understands what it means to make art compared to some Christians. By failing to acknowledge that the style (form) of the music impacts the message (content), HHHers have made works of “art” under the superficial label of holiness, which actually function to mock the name of Christ.

Finally, I must say that this is in no way intended to be an attack on those who have been striving to do the Lord's work. I only wish to open some new doors of discussion on this topic. Please prayerfully consider what I have said here.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Christian Art and Community

Phi 2:1 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any affection and mercy,

Phi 2:2 fulfill my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, sharing the same feelings, focusing on one goal.

Phi 2:3 Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves.

Phi 2:4 Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others

Lately I have been in several discussions with other Christian thinkers about how to improve Christian art. The general consensus has been that community is probably one of the most important keys to working towards art that glorifies God in spirit and in truth. The question that has been bothering me is how this community could practically work. While everyone seems to agree that supporting each other, sharpening each other, praying for each other and so on is really necessary in order to transform Christian art from a commercial enterprise in entertainment to a Biblically mandated form of worship, my anxiousness to begin this work is stifled by a confusion over what this “community” would look like and how it would operate.

Last night, as I was lying in bed I began to reflect back on Biblical examples of community. I didn’t want to see something in the Word that wasn’t there, to pull some verse out of its setting and twist it beyond all sense until it spoke to me and my desire for artistic shalom; but I did want to know if I could base my desire for community in the Scriptures, rather than some Marxist influenced nonsense. A few weeks ago I was teaching out of Philippians in the small group Bible study that my wife and I attend. This book is probably my favorite, or at least one of them. The passage I quoted at the beginning of this blog came to mind as an example of what a Christian community of artists should look like.

  1. Verse 1: The Source of Unity. Their unity comes from Christ, His love, His gift of the Spirit, His intimate love, and His forgiveness of our sins. This is listed as the foundation for Christian unity by Paul and it is no less important for artists. Without Christ as our truly conscious example and support, we will be unable to handle the difficulties and differences that will inevitably arise from a community. I say true consciousness because it is a dangerous thing to just allow this idea of Christ’s support and encouragement to become merely intellectual. It has often been necessary in my own walk to consider what I really believe and make a conscious choice daily to rely on Christ, not in some ethereal sense, but practically and specifically. The love that will be produced if this command is fulfilled will result in a community that is guided by God’s will rather than personal egos.

  2. Verse 2: Single-Mindedness. Almost every person agrees that the members of a community should be single-minded; however, they generally think that the whole should be single-minded in their agreement with their own ideas. But this verse is not saying that we should all sit down and come up with a list of goals, while that might be an acceptable form of obedience to this command. The single-mindedness referred to here comes from the first verse; it comes from a desire to worship Christ and an active choice to remember His love for us. If this is done, single-mindedness will follow.

  3. Verse 3: Selflessness. The next outgrowth of focusing on Christ for support is that the purpose of an artistic community will not be to further the career or boost the ego of any member, but to serve God and each other. Practically, this means that criticism will be honest but loving; spiritual, financial, emotional, and intellectual support will be sincere and not self-serving; and the only boasting will be in the work of Christ.

  4. Verse 4: Sincere Interest. Our modern culture tends to be very splintered and segregated. People who are into certain subcultures shun other subcultures, people who love certain genres or mediums of art ignore, mock, or are indifferent to others. Within a Christian community this is unacceptable however. Paul calls us to be really concerned about the interests of others. In this verse it suggests that the whole of their life, not just their spirituality—which ought to be joined with everything—should be our concern. As a community, our time and efforts should not just be spent encouraging people who work within our medium, or our age group, or our church. The mandate is to all peoples. Now that does not mean that we must agree with the use of a particular medium as a form of worship to God, but that does mean that we are interested. Again, this interest will only come from the love of Christ. In our flesh we will only love those who serve us and who immediately relate to us, but the love of Christ extends beyond our personal interests. A godly community of artists will be open, accepting, and eclectic without sacrificing purpose and Truth in the name of “unity.” In addition, this means that we will also be interested in the lives and particulars of those outside of the arts. We are not allowed to be an insulated elitist group; rather, we must actively take an interest in those around us in the body, not just like-minded artists. The benefit for this kind of concern for others should be obvious. The art we create will not be in a vacuum, it will be human art which speaks directly to the people around us (since we will be with them and in intimate relationships with them) and to the love of Christ.

One of the things that strikes me so much about Paul’s description of how the Church should act is that it is exactly what the world innately knows to be True. Imagine how this artistic community would look if believers were to set aside their selfishness and submit to Paul’s command: there would be no egotism and capitalistic motives that the world so detests, there would be a real care for the individual and a concern for the group as a whole, there would be an acceptance of people and ideas without the loss of Truth, and there would be criticism that was honest but not hurtful. When I reflect on things like this and I consider how so many people (Marx in some ways) have spent their lives trying to achieve this balance, it reassures me of the truth of the Gospel. People seem to innately know that this is the way people ought to work together, yet they struggle and fail to gain this because they deny the one element that allows for true community: Christ.

So to return to my question of the practical incarnation of community, it seems to me that based on Paul’s commands we should be cautious not to assume that an artistic community needs to have any conventional form. Paul’s love for the people in the churches he would visit, and the urge to love each other in these verses is a universal command. This means to me that our goal as artists who desire community is to first summit to Christ and try to follow Paul’s words here. The community will naturally arise out of it. I am not suggesting that there should be no formal artistic communities; rather, I would urge artists to not allow a specific “community” to become a designated area for love and concern for each other. Our call is to love everyone and be particularly concerned for the interests of those in the Church, the whole Church, not just our writing workshop or whatever. If we do form formal communities we must guard our hearts so that we treat fellow believing artists outside our group just as lovingly as those inside.

I might come back to this issue again later, for now, please leave feedback agreeing, disagreeing, or continuing the discussion and check out the discussion here of the same topic: Faith Art Community Exploration

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Blogs, Music, and Reading

I just started a new quarter this week and it looks to be a difficult one. I'm going to start my thesis this quarter, while taking a class on Yeats, writing and presenting a paper at the ALA conference in San Francisco, hopefully writing and presenting a paper on C.S. Lewis at another conference, and finishing and promoting an album. Since I haven't had the time to write a new post, I thought I would take the time to point out some wonderful blogs on Christianity and the arts, as well as some music suggestions.

Discussion on the Arts

Faith Art Community Exploration

Dedicated to the exploration of faith and the arts in the hope of equipping and encouraging artists of faith to reach the full potential of their creative gifting. This looks to be a great new place to discuss art and faith with like-minded people. What is really exciting about this blog is the emphasis on community, not just pondering about how to make better art.

Diary of an Arts Pastor

This pastor has been a blessing and an encouragement to me as an artist. Like the last blog, he is focused on supporting Christian arts and making them better on a practical level, no just intellectually. He does post some interesting blogs on art theory and the spiritual aspects of art. It's guys like this that give me a lot of hope for the future of Christian art.

The Winding Road to Roundabout

Although he doesn't always write on the arts, his insight into the subject is always compelling.

the Un-Scene

Joel writes on music, Christian and otherwise, and is often published in papers and magazines with his reviews. While his blog is technically about his experience becoming a music critic, he does post thoughts on music, cds, and artists which are articulate and helpful. If your looking for some good music, go check out his blog.

Looking Closer Journal

Jeffrey Overstreet is fairly well known for his blog and his movie reviews. Like Joel's reviews of music, Jeffrey looks at the movies with a balanced eye. He is a Christian and there is no hiding that in his blog, however his approach to reviewing movies is quite like Schaeffer's or Rookmaaker's: he judges the art based on more than the artists's worldview, although that does count for something. This blog is a great resource for film news and reviews.


In... but not Of...

Stepehn is a young artist who works in architecture and other visual arts. At his blog he has examples of his work, reflections on the world, and discussions of faith and art.

The Master's Artists

This is a great group of bloggers who post daily on the literary arts. They are all good writers. Their posts tend to be very practical rather than theoretical. This is a great example of a wide demographic of Christian artists working together as a community to support each other.


Perhaps the most famous, good Christian visual artist is Makoto Fujimura. Refractions is his personal blog. His posts are vey articulate and poetic for a visual artist. His posts are usually works of art themselves, including his artwork, a spiritual, theoretical, and a practical element. Although he doesn't post often, when he does it is always a wonderful read.

The Prayer Book Project

One of the genres of music that I am most concerned about as a Christian artist is worship music. The Prayer Book Project is an attempt to make artistically excellent music that glorifies God in the worship music genre (loosely defined). His approach is very theoretical and conscious. If worship music is going to change, it will be because of people like Brian Moss who are willing to put their God given talents to work, sacrificing time and money to make music that glorifies God in spirit and in truth. Also, add him and listen on Myspace.

The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers

While this guy's personal belief might not be as strong as St. Paul's was, his music has a rare honesty that is missing in a lot of Christian rock music. For an in-depth discussion of the group, see my old post where the artist himself responds.


I put this last because everyone else here is much more worthy of being listed as examples of good Christian art. But since I spend a lot of time here ranting about the state of Christian art, I need to show that I am actually attempting to make a difference myself (by the grace of God). Soberminded is my Hip-Hop project with my friend and partner-in-rhyme Offbeat. We both rap and make the music. Although I can't give a stunning recommendation for our project, I can say that we have been approaching it consciously, with God at the forefront and with excellence as our goal. Our album should be done in another month or two (we finished recording, now its just mixing and pressing). Perhaps I'll give an in-depth review of it when it's done.

Well, that should give you all plenty to do. Check this blogs out, support these artists, and spread the word. Remember that the key to reforming Christian arts is through community, (actually that's not quite true, it's through the will of God acting in our community, but we can be a tool for the change.) so make a difference by encouraging artistic excellence for Christ.


Sunday, March 19, 2006

Worship Music and Dead Language

In a certain circle of thinkers, the topic of modern worship music and its problems has been thoroughly examined and debated. Because of that, I’m quite hesitant to throw my thoughts in, but since I have not yet heard anyone address the topic in precisely the way I’m about to, I feel compelled to write anyway. If someone else has approached the problem from the following perspective, please let me know so that I can give them credit.

When I say that I think that modern worship music often fails to worship God in spirit and in truth, I am speaking from my own experience. Every week, when I go to church and hear the worship music, I struggle with my spirit to understand, believe, and mean the words that I am singing. I see “Worthy is the Lamb” projected on the screen for me to sing with everyone else, but the words are utterly meaningless to me as I sing; however, should I read those same words in the Bible or in a work of theology, the actual denotive and connotive meanings of “worthy” and “Lamb” are called to my mind. The difference is that since I have grown up in the church, I have heard the same set of words used in the same context, setting, (and often the same musical key), thousands of times. Holy, wonderful, love, peace, grace, righteousness, cross, sin, blood, crown, beautiful, pierce, Christ, Jesus, God, Spirit, Son, Lamb…this isn’t a complete list, but it does include some of the most overly used words in worship songs. The consequence of confining ourselves within the same idiom for decades is that the words in the idiom have become empty symbols (there’s a deconstructionist reading here somewhere. Perhaps Mr. Edwards could help find it?). While the words projected on the screen and leaving our mouths mean “holiness,” our minds possess no thought that resembles the definition of holiness.

If I am correct in my assertion that the language of worship has become a dead language, then what is the songwriter to do in order to create music which sincerely worships God in spirit and in truth with artistic excellence? Is it possible to write worship music without ever speaking of Christ by His name? The solution to this problem is balance, discernment, and unpacking meaning. There are some words that must be used in worship music, at least occasionally. For those words, like the name of God and Christ, the important thing is to balance their use and to know when to use them for the greatest effect. Someone, a blogger whose name escapes me right now, once suggested that we take the Lord’s name in vain when we sing it twenty times in the same song. While I’m not sure I would completely agree with this statement, I do believe that he was correct in pointing to the fact that repetition diminishes power and meaning. If a secular song about a relationship repeated the word “love” fifty times, you wouldn’t believe that the singer loved someone more than a singer who sang the word “love” only once after spending most of the song detailing what that love meant. It is very important for worship songwriters to balance their use of specific words and to discern where to place them so that others will best grasp the meaning and purpose of the word in context.

Let me give an example to explain what I mean by unpacking meaning. When the poet uses language to express himself, he will use very specific words. One word in a poem holds within it a spectrum of meanings, both connotive and denotive. Instead of writing three lines of poetry to express something, a good poet often chooses one word that evokes the same meaning. In modern worship music, this same thing has occurred. The word “holy” has within it a wide array of meanings: set apart, sacred, righteous, pure, untainted, otherworldly, good, etc…By using such dense language, the songwriter can write lyrics that are full of complexity and depth; thus better expressing the theme of the song. But, as we have seen, in modern worship these words have lost their spectrum of meaning. When we sing holy, not only do we not think of the many meanings of the word, we rarely think of even the dictionary definition. Instead of one word standing in for ten thoughts or words, it now stands in for nothing; all that is left is the written symbol and the sound of the word. I believe that the solution to this problem is that worship songwriters must unpack the meaning of the words that they typically use. Thus, instead of using holiness, spend a line or two in the song describing God’s holiness. This accomplishes two things: first, it reduces the overuse of the worship song idiom, which will eventually lead to a time when people can hear the word “holy” in a song and again call to mind all the meanings attached to it; and second, it will be easier for those who sing along to focus on the meaning of the lyrics because the words will be outside the standard idiom.

As I said, I am speaking from my own experience and therefore what I am suggesting might only apply to myself. Please let me know if you experience something similar or different when you worship, or if you think the solution I’ve spelled out here (balancing the use of specific words, discerning where those words should be placed in a song for the greatest impact, and unpacking words in the worship idiom to revitalize meaning) is insufficient or misguided.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Random Thoughts Only

I'm sorry I haven't been posting the last few days. Finals and also I've been filling out paperwork so that I can teach over the summer. I've got a lot going on in my head right now, so hopefully something useful will show itself soon. Just to let everyone know, I've quoted here and elsewhere the theories of Calvin Seerveld concerning beauty and his idea of allusion. I wish I didn't have to admit this, but I do: for the last few months I thought that allusion was elusion. As in to elude someone. I'm an idiot. I hope that none of you hold this against me. I hope to have a new story hope in a few days. It's banging around in my head right now.


Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Thankfulness and the Writing Process

I don’t typically post blogs on my own life, although it seems to be the point of blogs in general, but I felt the need to let you all know how God has blessed me lately. In every single aspect of my life God has been doing wonderful things. In my music, my critical writing (here), my creative writing (also here), my scholarly writing (I was accepted to present a paper at the ALA conference in San Francisco), my career (I was just hired to teach one-two English 097 or 099 classes at the local community college this summer), my spiritual walk, my relationship with friends, and my marriage. So I guess I’m just posting this to say, thank you God.

Concerning the poem/short story I posted last week, “An Executive Responds to an Accusation,” I wanted to also thank everyone that read it and gave me some feedback. I’m not sure what I want to do with it yet, although I did turn it in to someone who is publishing a book of collected poems and stories. Who knows if it will be accepted though. I actually wrote the entire poem in a class while I was substituting. I got the idea from a post I wrote a few months back on the Sublime and the innate desire for the infinite that exists in everyone. At the time I was trying to express how this desire can even be found in advertisements, how they in many ways are simply an attempt to play on that desire for eternity and perfection. But I couldn’t find the words to express what I was convinced of. And then, I can’t exactly recall what sparked my imagination, I felt this whole dialogue rush to my head. The voice was an advertising executive who was confronted by an irate consumer. The consumer was mad that women were being objectified in ads, a concern that I often have. When I was finished writing the poem, I realized that I was able to express what I was incapable of communicating before.

I have been struggling for the last two years over whether I should stop trying to do creative writing and just focus on my academics. A novella that I’ve been working on for over a year has been a constant source of disappointment for me as it fails to materialize in the way that I envision, and two of the short stories I’ve written have been poorly received, even by those who tend to be overly gentile with me. An artist should be someone who is able to communicate truths (Truths) powerfully, evocatively, intimately, and yet allusively. I have never been able to successfully accomplish this in my writing, until now. While I wouldn’t dream of thinking that this poem is great or worth publishing, I do feel like I’ve been able to communicate something that really couldn’t be communicated through academic prose. And for that I praise God, and am very encouraged.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

An Executive Responds to an Accusation

You have it wrong.
It's true that there are women in our ads, sometimes in provocative dress or poses-don't nod your head-let me finish.
We are in the business of giving people new worlds.
It's not Hollywood, or books, or video games.
We are the dreamers.
We provide a world of purity, hope, love, passion, simplicity, and peace.
Real peace-note that.
When someone watches a show or a film, no matter how good it looks, they will never suspend their disbelief completely.
But for us they will.
Because we offer the future.
A story can only describe a life of peace, we can show you what it looks like and how to arrive there.

You’ve got it all wrong.
The women are only one small piece.
We offer a whole world of perfection to people.
Besides, this is the only hope left.
People can’t look to god for a world of peace and perfection,
He’s been dead for almost two hundred years now.
But Nietzsche was wrong, we didn’t bury him.
Now’s he’s part of us.
He’s part of the hope we give people.
We might only have his carcass, but most people never checked anyway.
Our hope is unconditional, his wasn’t.
We can offer the infinite, the otherworldly, without restriction.
Salvation for everyone.
Anyway, he helps us now.
Especially with those who are afraid of science.

That’s dead too.
They promised what they could never produce:
Justice, comfort, equality, morality.
Some people still cling to it.
But its no better off than god.
The people need a hope now.
Not tomorrow.
They need a hope they can taste, love, drive, and even throw away.
Science is too impersonal, distant, and alien to our hearts.

Science failed man too.
That’s why we go on.
To fill that horror of recognition that cripples people when the learn where they live.
We don’t give them sex.
We give them everything they know sex should be: eternal, unblemished, pure, unhindered; profoundly personal, yet ubiquitous and self-serving.
This is the heaven that science couldn’t build and god wouldn’t give.
Every child is born knowing that the sky should be a richer blue than it is, sorrow should always be temporary and cured with humor, that people never die nor animals, nor moments; that jobs shouldn’t define us or consume our youth.
All these things, and more, we give people.
Our ads hold infinite possibilities of peace.
But unlike science and god, people can actualize the hope we give them now.

Yes, it costs.
But that’s why it is hope.
Costs mean value; and value, finiteness; and finiteness, uniqueness; and uniqueness validates the individual.


Yes, they eventually all become disenchanted with what they buy.
A detergent that offers pure, vibrant colors—along with true happiness in marriage—is found to be no better than the last brand.
But it never lasts.
Soon they forget and their faith in us returns.
Because they know, all of them, that they need our promise, they miss the infinitely wonderful and only we can fill them.
So, to answer your question,

We don’t exploit women in our ads.
We provide the only living hope of infinite possibility and consumable actuality.
This is the greatest service to mankind, and an everlasting hope.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

A Feed? Finally

Well I broke down and added a RSS feed and an email subscription. So enjoy!

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A Man on a Bench Who Spoke Volumes

A couple of months ago I was driving home from a seminar class and I was confronted with a sight that will forever change the way I see art. In the class there was only a fellow graduate student, the professor, and myself. We had spent the last two hours discussing the use of story telling in 's Absalom, Absalom! and how it reflects a particular view of history. There are few things that make me feel more alive and validated than a good intellectual conversation about . As I drove home I felt like I had learned something about the way the world worked, the way stories were passed on and how we understand ourselves in relation to those who have gone before us. Reality itself lay naked before me, I was not merely living life, I was knowing life. And then I hit a stoplight.

I have a hard time focusing my eyes on one point; I’m always darting around looking at people. The slightest movement sends my eyes searching for action. So as I sat stopped at the light, it was natural for my eyes to take in the people on the sidewalks and those in the cars around me. Unlike most times I allow myself to wander visually, this time I fell upon something that captivated me and shattered every notion of understand that I ever had.

To my left was a bus stop. It was ordinary, the kind you usually find around here with its bench, shade, and obligatory advertising. On the bench a man sat alone. He was probably around 25, but his evident lifestyle made him look a decade older. He wore no hat, and had a buzzed head with very short black hairs barely visible. For a shirt he had a respectable looking dress shirt buttoned to the top without a tie. His pants were khaki and neatly creased. I could make out dark lines which covered his arms and part of his neck; I was convinced that the tattoos continued over the rest of his torso as well. I didn’t see him do anything but sit there, but he crushed me nonetheless.

Immediately, all the intellectual musings on history and stories came crashing down like Icarus and my mind was frozen. Even if Faulkner’s treatment of the American dream in is the greatest ever written, it still has nothing to say to this man. Everything I had said in that graduate discussion, everything I had thought about the importance of those words, seemed completely irrelevant now. If I couldn’t speak of art in a way that allowed for every human contingency, than it was a lie.

Maybe I over reacted, but I don’t think so. , just like Christian thoughts about what good art is, should always include a conception of humanity that is true of all people. The work does not have to spend all of its energy capturing every ounce of unity between humans, but it does have to be honest about what it means to be human. An honesty that rings just as true in a literature class as it does on a bus stop. At times Faulkner, as all great writers do, finds this honesty, and when he does I know that I am not reading something that only speaks to a highly educated member of society, but to a human made in the image of God. Let our art always capture this: a vision of humanity that acknowledges God’s love, and man’s sin.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Theory and Youth

As an English major, I have been blessed to be under the tutelage of various teachers and professors who reject the fundamental belief that Theory is the core of literature studies. That said, I still have been exposed, through assigned readings, literary conferences, and research to the ubiquitous presence of literary theory. , in a of the book Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent over at, challenges the forces of Theory and suggests that its reign is coming to an end.

Last October, I had the privilege of attending The International Conference on Romanticism in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The paper I was presenting there was on fragment poem, “Christabel.” Since I am both bored and philosophically opposed to , , and “ism” theoretical approaches, my paper was focused on the structure of the poem and its relation to the themes. Before the panel began, I was able to chat with the panel chair, a professor who had made his life’s work in the British Romantic poets and was also presenting on Coleridge. When I told him my topic, he was shocked that I was not applying any theoretical paradigms. He remarked that his paper was also theory free. As if the odds of two non-theoretical papers being presented at the same panel wasn’t absurd enough, the third presenter (who like me was a graduate student) also defied academia with her paper. The chair confided in me that at a panel the night before, two graduate students presented papers which were theory free, much to the surprise of himself and other established academics. He suggested that perhaps a subtle move is happening within higher education, starting with young academics, away from Theory.

In his review, Berkowitz posits this question: “Can aging hipsters rambling on in the classroom in opaque language about oppositional aspirations and transgressive interpretations while living comfortable and conformist lives really be a pretty sight to curious and intelligent college students?”

For me, the answer is no. A shift is occurring, and must occur, which returns humanity to some semblance of order, faith, and absolutes. As I have before, the are a part of this shift, as are those with faith in God. The fact is that art and criticism cannot continue to exist in an intellectual world without grounding. Music, literature, film; all these mediums have suffered in recent years from tremendous stagnation, criticism likewise has drained the lifeblood out of our universities. There comes a time in the life of an artist or critic living in this postmodern intellectual environment that they must ask why they bother to write, create, or work. Without final meaning, is not even a discussion of meaninglessness absurd? That is why a work of nihilistic fiction is a paradox.

Read Berkowitz’s review and tell me what you think about our intellectual future afterwards.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Prayers and Tears


I have always struggled between a desire to hear and support a genuinely, artistically, good Christian band and the reality that I’ve yet to hear such a band. Recently I ran across and their/his album Psalterie and I think I might have found in them the first that I can honest claim is artistic. You can download the entire album for free, which is quite nice considering that it is a true work of .

In addition to the album, the group has a flash program that you can download which includes pictures, lyrics, and commentary on the album. When you listen to the album you can tell that the artist, , is trying to say something substantial with his lyrics and his music, but the exact meaning is fairly allusive. Thankfully, the commentary does not simply consist of recording notes, but actually commentary on the themes and meanings of each song. Part of the reason I like this guy is that he is trying to make that says something.

One of the great challenges for many Christian rock artists seems to be finding a , but Wright succeeds in this regard. Each of the songs on the album was “suggested” by the book of psalms. In the title of most of the songs is the verse that inspired it. Some times it is difficult to see the connection between the verses alluded to and the lyrics of the songs, but Wright’s commentary helps clarify things. While I won’t say that it is an experimental album, I will say that some of the recordings, productions, and dynamics are not typical in the least. And where Wright deviates from the beaten-pop-path it is always for a reason. The music speaks the same language as Wright himself. In “The Most Important Words (Ps 80:5),” for example, as the lyrics sing praises to God and relate our relationship to Him, the backup vocals weave in and out of key; thus evoking musically the same theme as “When the Music Fades,” without the needing to come out and say: “I am a fallen man making music to a perfect God, therefore my art will not be sufficient worship but I give it a try anyway.” You get a sense that everything on this project was chosen for a reason, every electric hum, reversed guitar, accordion, and odd vocal.

But there is something I am keeping back here. Two things actually. First, he says the F word, loud, forcefully, and unapologetically. In fact, he actually says in the commentary for “The Sun Fell on You (Ps 119:82)” that he knew that the song would get him into “trouble” because of his use of language. Yet he chose to put it in there. The second thing sort of explains why he felt comfortable using such profanity on a Christian work of art: Wright is not a perfect Christian. He describes many of his songs as “frustrated and faithless,” and claims to have occasional “sojourns into atheism.”

I think that when we, I am thinking particularly of myself here, try to conceive of what good Christian Art should be, we often think in terms of nonchristian/Christian. But this binary is not realistic in many ways, and Wright is a great example of this. I would never make the argument that Wright’s music represents a work of art made by a Christian walking righteously with Christ, but it is a very honest work. It is the work of a man who is struggling with faith; who does not pretend to have all the answers and know all the dogma, and who doesn’t pretend to be a tortured agnostic. This is a man who is growing in faith, who is maturing, who is learning, who is struggling with what it really means to believe, and as such there are elements (like the profanity) that display a lack of faith, but at the same time a deep honesty. Wright does not sound like he wants to shock anyone with his hip-postmodern-tenuous belief; he is simply a man coming to terms with his relation to God.

Perhaps the best song on this album is “Come Ye Sinners Poor and Needy (Ps 109:22),” an 18th century hymn by Joseph Hart that Wright arranges on guitar. Consider what he says about this song in context of the album as a whole:

“I struggled with the possibility of putting such an obviously religious song alongside my own often frustrated and faithless tomes. But Hart’s words truly do express the movement I have been trying to herald-and thankfully by means of a far more sophisticated pen.” (my emphasis).

If Prayers and Tears were affirming false doctrines through evocative music and powerful statements, I would not be writing about them here. But they don’t. Instead, through music that skillfully combines themes with sounds, lyrics with meaning, Wright chronicles his own “movement” toward faith. It is not a mature faith; we should not turn to him for answers, but that is not the place of art anyway. Where Wright is wrong, he is not making dogmatic pronouncements, but positing tentative beliefs. Perhaps the one statement that stands out is that he is trying to make the movement towards faith. And while I cringe when I hear him call Christ a baby “covered in filth and lies,” I delight that he understands that it is only this Baby that can save him. And I pray that his struggle will turn into comfort, and he will know the “peace of God which surpasses all comprehension.” (Phil 4:7). As he makes this movement, I will rejoice in the Lord that He has given Wright such an imaginative ability and devotion to excellence in order to worship Him in Spirit; and I pray that he will soon worship also in Truth. Posted by Picasa

Sunday, February 05, 2006

What Her Reflection Told

I have a bad habit.  I can’t remember when it started or why, but whenever I see someone I know in public, I hide.  It probably comes from this subtle fear I have of talking to people.  When I notice an old friend walking around a store, I get that feeling like when you are about to scoop that first spoonful of peanut butter from an undisturbed jar.  On one hand, I know that if they see me and I don’t talk to them they’ll think I’m a jerk, but I like just letting them go along their own way.  The other thing is that when I’m alone I get focused.  I’ll start talking to myself and everything.  But I think the real reason I ignore people is that I don’t care about them.  I know that sounds awful, but if you were honest you would probably say the same thing.  There are times when I just don’t care about anyone at all, except for myself of course.

Every week I let myself have a beer.  I go to the Trader Joe’s down the street from our house and pick up some exotic beer; a different one every week.  Last week I got out of a night class and decided that I wanted to have my weekly beer, so I headed over to Trader Joe’s.  When I walked in the store I was already lost in thought over some research I was planning on doing when I got home; something about Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.  

The store has a whole aisle dedicated to alcohol, which doesn’t sound impressive but if you know how small the store was you’d realize how impressive that really is.  They are known for having about the best wine selection in the whole valley.  When I turned on to the aisle I saw a neighbor with his two daughters talking to an employee about some wine.  They’re a Christian family, an incredibly close Christian family.  They have like eleven kids and all but two of them are girls.  The crazy thing about them is that they are really friendly to everyone.  I guess as long as I’ve known them I’ve never seen one of the 13 members of that family ignore me, or anyone for that matter.  There’re the type of people that always like to visit with people.  When everyone else in this impersonal world is running around trying to keep conversations to meaningless signs, they always insist upon substance.  The two girls with him were around six and twelve, I wish I knew their names, but I don’t.  As I headed toward the beer I wanted to get, the older girl saw me and waved.  It’s really great to see a girl say hi to you with a genuine smile and know that they aren’t flirting and they don’t expect you to be flirting either.  Something that I forgot to mention about this family, there’re entirely home-schooled and they tend to only spend time with their own family or other Christian people.  I guess that would make them sort of isolated, but to me they just seem kind and real.  Part of that has to be that they don’t get to see a lot of the sick and plastic and selfish way people can act in the world, and maybe they don’t need to.  At least, I don’t want them to.

I said hi to the girl, grabbed my beer, and headed toward the checkout.  As I was walking away I kept glancing over to my neighbor to see if he would see me, but he was still talking to the employee and as such had neither seen me nor heard his daughter say hi to me.  I felt kinda bad as walked past him.  I knew that he would want me to stop and say hi, but I was full of thoughts and I did want to get home.  

There was one person ahead of me in line, which made me kind of anxious.  I had this fear that if my neighbor would see me then he would come over and talk to me and then his daughter would say something like, “oh, I saw him earlier,” and then he would know that I had ignored him; or maybe he would see my beer and realize that I must have been standing right next to him when I got it and I didn’t say anything.  I’m sure all this sounds petty to you, but you don’t understand my neighbor and his family.  People mean something to him, and you can’t just ignore that about a guy like him.  

I felt better when it was my turn to checkout.  By that time someone had gotten in line right after me and I could still see my neighbor talking in the distance.  I tried to hurry everything along as I paid for the single beer.  Luckily the checker was this guy who had carded me about ten times before so he always lets me buy my beer without showing ID.  As I slid my debt card through the scanner to pay, I looked to my right to see my neighbor and his two girls inline to checkout.  There was still one shopper between us, but I knew he had seen me and that I should at least say something to him.  I looked his direction for a second or two to see if our eyes could meet, but at the time he was saying something to the littlest girl.  I had to do something quick, the checker was handing me my receipt and I knew if I waited a second longer than necessary then the next guy inline would get angry.  I either had to turn around and walk back to my neighbor and say hi, or I had to head for the door before he saw me see him.  I left.

I felt crummy leaving without saying anything to him, but I just couldn’t get myself to turn around.  Walking away I could feel them looking after me like they expected me to say something, it really bothered me.  Right before I walked out, I looked at the reflection in the glass door.  I could see the littlest daughter holding her father’s hand and looking at me as I kept walking.  She looked puzzled for a second, and then she looked up at her father and asked him something.  The door shut behind me before I could hear what she said, but I knew she must have been asking him why I didn’t say hi to them.  And I felt like the worst sinner ever.  

Sure, I’m no child molester, or serial killer, or dictator, or whatever, but I did something to that little girl that was inevitable and brutal.  I showed her that there are people who claim to love God and who hate their neighbor.  I broke with the sacred fellowship that her father and her offered me because I wanted to get home.  If it hadn’t been me, it would have been someone else, but for her six years of life I don’t think that little girl had ever seen a believer who was willing to sacrifice love for the sake of convenience.  She now has one less sacred thing in the world, and I took it from her.  How am I not a child molester?  

Monday, January 30, 2006

The Neo-Rationalists and Architecture

Yesterday I had to take a trip down to UCLA to do some work with my Research Methods class. I have been reading the blog of who has been writing lately about ornamentation in architecture, an art form that I usually ignore due to my own lack of knowledge. While I was there, I decided to take in the architecture of this grand university.

The first thing that struck me was the pure size of the campus. There is nothing small at either, all the buildings were immense and powerful. I felt incredibly insignificant as I wandered through the sculpture gardens and pathways towards the library. Before I reached the Young Research library I passed by a building that must have been nothing short of twenty stories high. You could walk right under this tower since the foundation was made up of six or so pillars; there really was no true first story, but it was powerful in its size and scope.

The Young Library itself was just as massive as the pillar-tower, but whereas the first looked as if it had been the brainchild of an architect, the library appeared as if it had not been designed at all. It was a rectangle with some doors and windows.

When I finished my work at Young I took a walk to the Powell library, which is famous for its beauty. This whole area of the campus was made up of buildings that looked as if they had been taken from some old British university. I felt clever just walking amongst such structures. Remarking on these stunning buildings, one of my fellow students pointed out some Celtic designs on the arches over a doorway. At the time I didn’t think much of it, but once I entered the awesome Powell library I was confronted with a Spanish motif on the walls and a physical structure of a 200-year-old British structure.

It felt as if the architect looked at a bunch of buildings that he liked and then decided to put them all together just because he could. Each of the individual parts of the library was beautiful and powerful, but as a whole it was absurd in its apparently meaningless conflation of several different architectural styles. Recalling the other library and the pillar-tower I then realized that the campus itself was no different. Each individual structure was in someway magnificent, but together they seemed to have no unity at all; one building clashing with the one next to it in style and affect. Beauty, truth, and power were everywhere I looked, but none of it agreed.

Later that afternoon, my professor and I talked as we made our way back to the campus from lunch down in Westwood. We were both discussing intellectual problems facing ChristiansChristians in our times. We both agreed that it was important for Christians to be standing against the meaninglessness and relativism of Postmodernism, but he made the point that Christians in America seem to be anti-intellectual and that this was just as dangerous if not more so. I agreed with this, although I believe his intent was to suggest that any Christian who rejected Darwinism was irrational and therefore anti-intellectual. While I disagreed with the particular example that he was alluding too, I did agree with the broader, transcendentalist separation of spiritual truth and rational truth. Not wanting to launch into a lengthy debate on the merits of Intelligent Design, I decided to remark on a third popular philosophy that seems to be gaining ground worldwide.

It is commonly agreed upon that postmodernism (in its broadest definition as a belief system which is founded upon relativism and doubt) is the dominant philosophy of our day, whether this come in the form of art, politics, new age religions, or political correctness. This system’s crowning feature is its very lack of a foundation. Much like the pillar-tower, one is struck by the complexity and magnificence of such a structure that could be so easily toppled. And yet, it seems to be quite proud of the fact that it has an inadequate basis. It is as if the architect said, “look how great a thing I can make upon such a fragile foundation.” This is the postmodern situation, which so forcefully leaves man without meaning, without any epistemological ground, without value, and without purpose; but it does form a mighty structure by which to function.

My professor’s pet peeve was the “fundamentalist” Christians, who reject the importance of rationalism for the appearance of spirituality. To him, if one chose to be a fundamentalist, one had to reject science as a lie for the sake of believing a literal interpretation of the Bible. While I believe he was putting up a false dichotomy between science and the Word, (torn between accepting the truth of man’s science and the truth of the Word, he chooses man) for the sake of this discussion I will only describe the world’s perception of fundamentalists as ignorant and irrational. And I believe that this view is not totally out of line with the beliefs of some. As the Powell library was dressed up with the profound beauty of the ages, and yet lacked any true unity that could have come had the architect applied some rational thought to his design, many Christians look for the appearance, the semblance of the spiritual rather than True Spirituality. In this respect they are not far from the postmodernists in their relativism, the difference being that the fundamentalists deny that they lack a sufficient foundation.

The third philosophy that is pervasive in our culture is what I would call a blind rationalism. This, I believe, is the most dangerous of the three. It neither pretends to have a foundation, nor does it flaunt its lack of one; rather, it ignores the question and places it aside as a question for absurd postmodernists and ignorant fundamentalists to fight over. Logic works, and no matter what Hume may say about the rising of the sun, it rises every morning in defiance of the skeptics. Not only that, its very rise can be completely explained without any appeal to deity and should it ever not rise; there would be a scientific explanation. Its spokes men are scientists and corporations. Like the Young Research Library, the question of a foundation is irrelevant as well as all questions of beauty, truth, and meaning. The strongest opponents of ID are among these. Many Christians sympathize with it because it rejects the relativism of postmodernism, and many postmodernists sympathize with it because it rejects the faith of fundamentalism. This third system is quiet and well liked by everybody, it’s rarely called to stand before criticism, and it appeals to the capitalism of our culture.

As we neared the end of our walk, my professor commented on the beauty of the buildings at UCLA; he talked of their magnificence and grandeur and said that this is what a university should look like. To which I replied that while it maybe a grand campus, the pervasive architecture is sterile, without any sense of beauty or of meaning. Almost everything looked like an interpretation of the Young Research library: practical, rational, solid, and devoid of any transcendence. And while one could find a piece of truth scattered about the campus, as a whole it seemed to be in utter chaos. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Intelligent Vonnegut

This is not an Intelligent design blog, but as art exists within culture and science is a part of culture, it seems that there is very little that I could talk about here that would be truly off topic. In one of the most interesting twists of reality that I have been witness to, in an NPR interview Kurt Vonnegut has spoken in support of ID, at least as a topic for discussion in the classroom. Check out Intelligent Design the Future's blog on the interview from NPR. Even if you don't believe in a Biblical conception of creation, the censorship that has been going on against anyone related to ID should be absurdly frightening to you, that is assuming that you care about critical thinking, reason, and independent thought. For an introduction to some problems in evolutionary theory, check out my friends project.

On a side note, this blog has been getting quite a few new readers. The month of January has brought the most hits to this site since its conception! So if you're new, thanks for stopping by, please comment and come back for more!

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Offensive Art

Over at Mark Bertrand’s and at there has been some discussion over Michael Snyder’s short story, “All Healed Up.” The question has been raised over the use of material in the story that could offend people. Having just written a of my own with graphic violence and language, I felt compelled to join the fray.

As , I feel that it is our job to love God and our neighbor with our creation. Often this has been interpreted to mean that we must shield both parties from the evil that exists in this life. But I do not believe that this is true love. An illustration will help me make my point here. Let us say that I am dying of lung cancer. I have spent the last thirty years of my life smoking despite the fact that I knew that it would kill me and hurt others. You are my best friend and will be hurt the most by my death. Considering that I selfishly brought this death upon myself, and deep sorrow upon you, how do you react lovingly to me? If you ignore what I have done and my suffering, you do not love me at all. No matter how wrong I was, no matter how selfish I was, if you ignore my suffering then you are doing a great evil yourself. As Christian artists, if we ignore the realities of this world then we only are suggesting that humanity and its suffering (with or without Christ, for both suffer in this world) is trivial. But nothing could be further from the truth. Separation from God, from peace, from Shalom is a tremendously painful existence. If you add to that the other sorrows of this life (pain, death, finiteness, limited time…etc…) that everyone experiences then you must admit that it is no light thing to exist in suffering.

So, to love someone you must not ignore the sin and sorrow of this life, but if you do not ignore them then you will offend someone with these horrors. If I relate the wretched and tortured existence of a serial killer, I will be treating that person as a person, as valuable. But that story might also be a great offense to others. The key here is balance. We must strive to make art that acknowledges man and his suffering and his fallenness. But not in a way that minimizes the great need for Christ’s intervention. Often when does speak to the human condition, it does so in a didactic manner. Returning to our illustration, this would be the same as coming to me as I am slowly dying and telling me how smoking kills me and suggesting that I should stop. It is not that these things do not need to be said, but that they need to be said with a tremendous love and empathy for the individual. This requires a love that comes from Christ alone. We do not have the selflessness to empathize with others sincerely. We never have and never will without Christ. We must acknowledge and offer hope without trivializing anything. What a challenge. The first step to avoiding offending people with a portrayal of the world, which includes sin and evil, is to be honest. If we are honest about sin, then we will not be glorifying it or cheapening its awfulness. The second step is to judge your audience. Not everyone should take part in viewing/taking-in all . There are some works of art that are too graphic for me. Their presentation of the human body is too vivid. I know that if I watch certain movies I will no longer stay faithful to my wife in my heart. That doesn’t mean that those movies are not great works of art, or that they glorify sin, it simply means that they are too much for me. It is easier for me to say that all art is sin and reject it than it is to be on my knees in prayer for wisdom and discernment. It is easier to love shallow works that do not offend me than those that offend but speak to the human condition. This is because critical thinking is not valued and discernment is often exchanged for legalism. As artist, it is our responsibility to be sensitive, in prayer for discernment, and aware of who will be engaging our art.

In conclusion, I believe that Christian artists have both the freedom and responsibility to make art that does “expose the deeds of darkness” at times, with an honest love for both those in sin and those who will be reading the stories. This balance only comes through prayer and exercise of discernment, and most of all, a true desire to love our God and our neighbor through art.