Tag Archives: art

The value of artists for the church

This thought struck me today:  Do the “worship wars” exist in our churches (and I’m thinking of conservative Evangelicals mostly) because we lack a deep and meaningful theology of art?

Do we devalue certain kinds of music or performance because, generally speaking, we devalue the artists among us?

I realize that I’m generalizing here based on mostly my own experience, the echo chamber that is my Facebook feed and my friend groups, and articles I tend to see on the Internet. But hear me out — let me know if you think there’s something here.

Worship music exists on a settled continuum at this point in American church history. Since the 1970s, rock and pop (and country) sounds have become more and more mainstream as part of the Sunday service. What began as “praise choruses” (thanks, Keith Green!) grew into a huge Christian music industry by the 80s (who hasn’t heard of Amy Grant) and a juggernaut of Christian media, praise and worship music, and performance styles. But it’s not been a smooth ride. New forms alienate traditional worshipers. And I think we can agree that a lot of Christian music – like secular music – is at best mediocre, from a musician’s point of view.

It seems like the worship wars have cooled to an uneasy detente: traditionalists scoff at “Jesus Is My Boyfriend” music that repeats the same line 25 times. Contemporary worship leaders value traditional hymnody but want to get away from the funeral dirge of organ/piano/face in hymnal that they probably grew up with.

I think the two positions can be summed up easily thus:

And if you need a third example, find the Eddie Izzard clip (from his stand-up routine) about Anglicans singing in church …. (it always goes through my head when I’m singing “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” not my favorite tune).

Thing is, both approaches to music, traditional and contemporary, can serve up skill and artistry. And both can fall into the traps of mind-numbing boredom or lack intentionality.

And – with a gentle nudge to my hymn-loving / repetition-hating friends – repetition is a valid song-writing technique. To say otherwise is to deny the artistry of the psalms – and not just the famous ones like 150 or  136 (which repeats “for his mercy endures forever 36x…. just saying…..).

So I’m wondering.  Do we war over music (or simmer silently when the worship leader picks a song we hate) because we lack a cohesive theology of art?

Think about your church. Aside from the main platform musicians who are playing for worship regularly, how many artists and musicians get the chance to integrate their skill set into the ministry of your church?

How much art hangs in your worship space?  If you’re from a Reformed denomination like I am, perhaps not much. Maybe word art of some kind, cloth banners with verses on them, or perhaps a long-established symbol of something non-controversial like the Trinity.

Any art that isn’t totally unambiguous?

Any music that speaks to the more difficult passages of Scripture, like the prophets or Revelation? Any music that doesn’t always resolve to a happy ending?

Any physical movement? Any dance? Any theater?

Many churches are working to incorporate art, music, dance, and other aesthetics into the worship and life of the congregation. For those churches, I am deeply thankful and hope they lead the way for the rest of us. 

This morning at church, teens from our congregation led us with tambourine and dance. It doesn’t happen often, and it’s usually just one song, but there’s so much joy sparking out of their hands and feet. It nudges even our congregation to move, to smile, to reflect the God Who rejoices over us with singing. 

If we put 90% of our worship energy into making or listening to propositional statements, I think we lose the power of space, time, sound, and sight to shape our understanding of God-given beauty. And then we end up throwing shade at the people who don’t worship like us. “They have a band.” “The drums are too loud.” “It feels like a concert instead of a church.” “The music is old and boring.” “I hate the organ. It sounds like death.”

We must learn to worship. Learning to appreciate different types of music, song construction, liturgies takes time and intentionality.

And one of the best resources for that work often lies untapped among our congregations – the artists among us, those who are honed to see a more complex beauty, those who are wired to feel truth as much as know it.  Let’s value the artists among us for the gift that they are.

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I recommend James KA Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom if you want to explore further the ways in which the incarnated practices of liturgy train our hearts at a pre-conscious level. Here’s a condensed lecture version.

 

Good reads (and a listen) from late August

I’ve been scrambling to survive a magazine deadline and the first week of class, but I always save at least a few minutes to skim social media or rest with a book.

A few I recommend for your attention:

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates (Amazon link)
Visit your favorite local bookstore, grab a cuppa from the cafe, and read the first chapter.  Coates (who is famous for his long narrative and personal pieces about Black life in America for major media) penned letters to his teenaged son, explaining his experience of growing up black in Baltimore. The account is gritty and angry, reminiscent of Richard Wright. Though nearly a century has passed since Wright and others raised their voices against the discrimination and racism of American life, Coates seethes with the same resentment.

Polls show that white Americans downplay the idea that racism affects justice or social mobility in our country. Coates’s account is one voice among millions so perhaps some may dismiss him as an outlier. But you need to encounter his biography and his anger and his hope and his despair honestly and for yourself.

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“I’m from New Orleans, but I didn’t understand why we needed to save it” (Washington Post)

intelligence is not wisdom. My belated New Orleans education forced me to swallow an impossible, and yet an inevitable, fact: the spiritual, the musical, the mystical side of human relations. Sometimes what is important cannot be seen, only felt.

Why is it so hard to value joy over economics? We struggle yet. But New Orleans seems to “get it.” Perhaps flirting with destruction is the only way to enjoy life.

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A tough read about what no white Republican really wants to talk about. So I’m going to post it here in hopes that you’ll have the courage to read it:

“What is the Southern Strategy? It is this. It says to the South: Let the poor stay poor, let your economy trail the nation, forget about decent homes and medical care for all your people, choose officials who will oppose every effort to benefit the many at the expense of the few—and in return, we will try to overlook the rights of the black man, appoint a few southerners to high office, and lift your spirits by attacking the ‘eastern establishment’ whose bank accounts we are filling with your labor and your industry.”

Source: How the GOP became the “White Man’s Party” – Salon.com

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I’m not sure I’d agree with Kennedy on every point here, but his eulogy for Robert Frost provokes great questions about art and its power to affect society through a radical telling of truth.

“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.”

Source: JFK on Poetry, Power, and the Artist’s Role in Society: His Eulogy for Robert Frost, One of the Greatest Speeches of All Time | Brain Pickings

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One of the best new songs I’ve run into. I absolutely love this track from The Fire Tonight’s new album.

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Enjoy. I’m already collecting more. 🙂

Article: Why are Christian movies so painfully bad? – Vox

This is a great article. I’m so tired of Christians being satisfied with bad, “preachy” movies and books and music because those feel “Christian enough” while truly Christian, challenging art shoots over the head of the average person.

It’s a childish view of the work of the artist, grounded in our Protestant failure to value story and image as highly as we love propositional, systematic statements. And while we are certainly People of the Book, we need to realize that God is telling a single, amazing, vast, nuanced Story of Redemption, one that encompasses within itself everything from erotic poetry (the Song) to apocryphal visions.

Recognize that “Christian art” finds its Christian-ness down in the bones, not on the surface. LikeTo End All Wars is one of the most “Christian” films I’ve ever seen, but it’s rated R.

Let’s support better art.

A couple great quotes from the article – please do read the whole thing:

Any person even vaguely familiar with Evangelical subcultures will recognize the trend of copying and sanitizing whatever pop culture is doing. This trend belies a certain impulse within Evangelical Christians to separate the entire world into two categories: sheep and goats, wheat and chaff.

A good deal of contemporary Christian art is predicated on the sacred/secular divide: As Christian film critic Alissa Wilkinson noted, “Christians, and evangelicals in particular, have been really, really prolific in making pop culture products that parallel what’s going on in mainstream cultural production.”

The end result is that the Christian product seems like a knock-off, a cheap alternative.

Even if Hollywood films do contain embodied messages, they’re not always as explicitly drawn out as they are in Christian movies. That’s because, says Godawa, many Evangelical Christians, who are people of the Good Book, have come to value words over images. “They don’t know how to embody their messages in the story,” he says. “They have to hear the literal words [of the Gospel].”

As with the bifurcation between sacred and secular, so, too, do contemporary Christian artists divide form and content, believing that what a piece of art says is of infinitely more importance than how it says it. The thing communicated is more urgent than how it’s communicated.

Of course, this perspective overlooks the fact that how a thing is communicated is the thing that’s being communicated. To put it in Marshall McLuhan’s terms, “The medium is the message.” That is, when you communicate an idea through the medium of film, the aesthetic quality of the film subsumes the idea, fundamentally altering its narrative shape.

via Why are Christian movies so painfully bad? – Vox.

Summertime Livin’

Sorry, folks, for the long hiatus from writing, but — it’s summer.  #sorrynotsorry

Days are long (and sometimes hot). There are books to be read, games to be played, people to be seen, and (most importantly) fresh produce to be consumed — made a cobbler today; cannot WAIT till all those fresh tomatoes roll in!

(Bonus: My favorite quick peach  cobbler recipe.)

Discovered a new author – Octavia Butler. One of her book collections was on sale last week in the iBooks store, so I picked it up after reading that one of her short stories won a Hugo back in the 1980s. Found that book on Kindle and rolled through it rapidly in the last couple days — Bloodchild and Other Stories.

Turns out, Butler was probably the first African-American woman science fiction author, and one of the only black writers in the genre, period.  Bloodchild included a couple of fantastic personal essays by her on becoming a writer – you can find them online here (I’ll link to the first as a PDF) and I recommend reading both:

Positive Obsession
“Furor Scribendi”

If you happen to pick up the story collection, don’t miss the short story “Speech Sounds,” which won her a Hugo award.  It’s an outstanding piece.

Been also wasting some good time playing games. Was given a tip by a coworker to enjoy the typographic gem Type:Rider (desktop; also for iOS or Android), a 2D platformer built totally around typefaces and fonts. The art is gorgeous and every level imparts tons of historical and artistic information about how various font families and printing developed. Definitely two thumbs up as a learning experience, as an interactive work of art, and as a solid game in its own right.

Type:Rider – TRAILER – EN from Cosmografik on Vimeo.

I might get around to some more writing in the next few weeks, but my day job is stealing most of my creative juices right now, leaving me with plenty of seeds and thoughts but little energy to get them all into words by the time I come home. I’ve done some more thinking on “Careers as Verbs”– I think that could develop into useful prompts for discussing calling and vocation, especially with young people who are trying to figure out what to study or what to do after graduation.  We make college students choose from a list of nouns when they’re picking a major when most of our lives are spent in action.

Along the way, we hope to tidy up a couple home improvement projects, do a little organizing, and see some friends. And eat good food.  Must enjoy the heck out of summer! (Looking for some good eats? Try these pork carnitas.)

I hope your summer is swimmingly awesome too.

 

Why I’m not voting for Haley

Gov. Nikki Haley Puts Down Arts Funding at Opening of Arts Festival | George Patrick McLeer Jr.

I’m tired of Nikki Haley’s war in South Carolina against the arts (see the link for an example ^), against mental health services, against public services in general in SC, against infrastructure.

If this is the Republican utopia of pseudo libertarianism where everybody who already has enough money can continue enjoying their lives while those in need are ignored because the scale of poverty is too big for individuals to overcome on their own …. well, I guess I need to go vote for Shaheen.

I missed the 2010 gubernatorial election in SC because I was so pissed at politics in general. I’m still pissed (and apathetic, somehow at the same time).  But this year I will make sure I vote.

I have no confidence that it’ll matter, but at least I’ll be able to complain with a clear conscience if Haley is re-elected.