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.