23 May 2006

Worldview Point #3

Read: Romeo & Juliet
Listened to: finally finished listening to Mark Twain’s Joan of Arc on tape. It’s been quite a journey, a meticulous and heartbreaking journey.

Link to the original worldview discussion

…but first, some more discussion on point #2. Rosie asked, what truth can we find in another religion that isn't already expressed in our own? Whew, wow, well, huge question. I have to answer this two ways.

First, I think there are truths we can find in other religions. I don’t know what the traditional theological position is, but there are things taught by other religions that are not readily known through any of the above-mentioned three means. There are religions, for example, that unify medical practices with their faiths, discovering the healing powers of herbs and so forth but attributing health to deities, spirits, etc. The Bible does not give much medical advice. There are religions, such as those that use astrology, which have made various scientific or quasi-scientific discoveries of which the Christian faith as yet knows nothing. Astronomy is finding out some things through “proof”—celestial influences via radio waves, for example—that eastern religions have taught for centuries by instinct. Can anybody think of other instances?

However, and here’s the other part of my answer, obviously I do not believe that any religion, science, or other interrogation of man can find out anything in contradiction to the Bible. Many appear to be in conflict, but these will be resolved upon further research or understanding. Furthermore, I wonder if any piece of knowledge comes by means other than man’s gifts as God’s image or through general revelation? In other words, doesn’t everybody everywhere know what they know, and indeed know anything, merely and totally because God give them brains and an orderly creation? So therefore all knowledge is given, in a round-about sense, by means of the Christian faith?

I have not dealt at all with other putative revelations—other sacred texts, dreams, visions, etc. Any takers?

Now, on to Worldview point #3: God is sovereign, man is responsible, and this “paradox” has great implications for art and life, the past and the future.

David Taylor once said artists must read their systematic theology. Indeed, I do believe that great Christian art is (partly) only as good as its doctrine. Partly; skill/craftsmanship/aesthetic excellence are also essential. But I also am coming to think that the debates over theological points are as fertile as solid convictions. The Problem of Evil is once such difficulty, the catalyst for large passages in Augustine’s Confessions, Dante’s trilogy, Milton’s Paradise Lost,….

And the debate over Free Will vs. Predestination is another such matter. I am reading Macbeth just now. The introductory matter in my Norton Critical Edition is by Robert S. Miola. He puts it into the context of culture controversies, one hot one being just this of Free Will vs. Predestination. He claims that “Whatever his personal convictions, Shakespeare clearly adopts a Catholic view of the action and theology of free will in this play” and “Rejecting the Protestant dichotomy between the elect and reprobate, Shakespeare deploys the Catholic view of free will perhaps from theological conviction, but more certainly from theatrical necessity. For the doctrine of predestination renders human action essentially undramatic: when the end is known, preordained, and absolutely just, there can be no real choice, suspense, conflict, or resolution. This conception of divine justice and human action renders pity an impertinence, terror a transgression, and tragedy an impossibility” (pp. xv, xvi).

I don’t think so. OK, sure, Shakespeare gives Macbeth the power of choice in this work, fine. I am not taking issue with Miola’s entire intro, not by any means. It’s splendid, well researched, and correct in its specifics. It’s only with the sweeping generalization I have a problem. I wouldn’t say that predestination freezes all possibility of dramatic action. What about Oedipus ? One of the greatest plays ever written, so I’ve been told, and it’s very power comes from the dreadful inevitability, the horrendous fate, the attempts to escape from destiny, indeed, from the very lack of free will! Am I right?

Let’s take another Shakespearean example: Romeo & Juliet. Right from the very get-go the end is determined:
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.

Well I guess I don’t need to stay and watch the play. The prologue gives it all away, it’s fated, it’s written in the stars, they’re going to die…. And yet I do stay, watch, am moved; and every time I hope (against hope, indeed) it will end differently! I wait for Friar Lawrence to get to the tomb before Romeo, I shout out loud “She’s not dead!” (only when reading, mind you; not when it’s on stage, although I have much ado to restrain myself!). When listening to Joan of Arc today I kept waiting for the rescue that would save her from the stake—O dreadful death! But I know my history; why did I wait for what I knew would not come?

[Why did Claudius sit still and unmoved when the Players acted the dumbshow, but jumped up disturbed and called for lights when he saw the “real” play, the Mousetrap?]

[Why do we watch the same play more than once, the same movie over and over, why do we reread our favorite books? Not only for forgetting…]

Two points:

1. The characters do not know the ending. They are within a double predestination, as it were. Theologians will pardon me for abusing the term. First, they are predestined by God, if such is the writer’s or audience’s belief. Second, they are predestined by the intent and will of the artist. Or perhaps I have those in the wrong order?

2. In life, we do not know our ending. The staunchest Calvinist, if he has his wits about him, believes that here inside time we must make choices. Yeah, perhaps God has set the choice before hand, certainly God knows what will be done, but that does not make the psychological and emotional experience of choice any less a reality. Any less real. It is also thus inside works of art.

22 May 2006

A renewed Christian aesthetic

Taking off from my comment on the previous post regarding the nudity of Christ in art, I went looking for a reference to the book I'd seen once, where I learned that fact about all the Renaissance paintings making a big deal about baby Jesus's "manhood." I found what I was looking for: this excellent article not only summarizes the content of the book (Leo Steinberg’s The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and In Modern Oblivion), but also fits in very well with the theme of this blog.

In concluding the article "Naked Christs and Balaam's Ass," author Joshua S. Anderson proposes three elements in a renewed Christian aesthetic: "First, we must produce art that is both theologically orthodox and Biblically offensive—that respects the historical boundaries of Christian belief, while authentically interacting with the text, and not veering away from the difficult parts of Scripture. An example is Barry Moser’s illustrations of the King James Bible, which includes portraits of the aftermath of the rape of Tamar, a detailed study of the Angel of Death, and a portrait of the graphic death of Absalom. This is not to discount Psalm 23 depictions of the good shepherd. The 'gentle' parts of scripture must not be neglected, but rather balanced—for the Bible is not a Disney cartoon, and it is both deeply unbiblical, and theologically dangerous, to treat it as though it were. Second, Christian art should be aesthetically excellent. There seems to be an unwritten rule that if a Christian paints a picture of Jesus, we should not criticize it, no matter how awfully it is done. This is shameful—Christ has redeemed all spheres of life, and Christian artwork should be held to higher artistic standards, not lower. As in all of life, the quality of Christian art is significant, because its quality glorifies its ultimate Creator. Finally, Christian artwork should be radically unsentimental. We must paint new paintings, find new metaphors (or, as Steinberg shows, rediscover old ones) to reflect the symphony of the Christian story. Indeed, the main act of Christian art must be to hold our hands to the flame, to reveal again, as if for the first time, the wonder and strangeness of the scriptural narrative as it sings the beautiful, and terrible, tale of the reckless love of God. For when we delight in the story—as we plumb its mysterious depths, laugh at its jokes, sigh at its tragedies, and celebrate its triumphs—we bring glory to the ultimate Storyteller. This, in the end, is the work of Christian art—to faithfully and excellently tell the story of God’s continuing work, in order to better glorify Him."

The whole article is worth reading. Anderson also takes on Andres Serrano's offensive work "Piss Christ" with a new twist that makes me respect it as a work of art, whereas before I'd been appalled that anyone would do such a thing. (Actually, to be honest, I had heard someone else give a similar response to the work a year or so ago, so this isn't the first time I've considered it in a new light.)

21 May 2006

A Bright Particular Star

This evening I saw the play "A Bright Particular Star" by Ron Reed, in its world premiere at Pacific Theatre in Vancouver. (PT is a wonderful theater company run by Christians which does excellent, thought-provoking plays; not all about religious themes, but always making you think about ultimate things and generating great discussions afterwards).

The play is about author George MacDonald (the one who was such an influence on C.S. Lewis) and his family, particularly his daughter Lilia and her struggle between wanting to be an actress yet wanting to serve the Lord and please her father. MacDonald's personality is complex. He loves Lilia and sees her acting as a gift from God, and believes that she should do what makes her heart light, because she can neither increase nor decrease God's pleasure in her by what she does. However he seems unduly influenced by Victorian Christian society around him, which says that it isn't proper for a Christian to act in plays unless they are morality plays like "Pilgrim's Progress." He himself seems incapable of living his own belief that one can serve the Lord and not be doing specifically "Christian" work; he can't seem to write a novel without padding it with sermons. In some ways he seems to know this and desire for his daughter to be free from this constriction, and yet he waffles back and forth between forbidding her to act in secular theater and freeing her to follow her heart.

Lilia is a complex character as well. She wants more than anything to be an actress, and (rather like Eric Liddel with his running) she feels God's pleasure when she does so. Yet she questions whether her own sense of what God wants her to do is reliable, since so many people seem to give her flack about it. On top of all this, she is in love with a young man who is wealthy but fickle; his enthusiastic support for her acting goes only so far. As soon as he realises he will lose his inheritence if he marries a woman who insists on performing Shakespeare instead of serving the poor like a good Christian woman, he changes his mind. She is faced with losing his love and a comfortable life if she follows her true calling. I won't give away the ending, in case this play ever hits the big time and you get a chance to see it.

Here's an excerpt from a review of the play by Tim Anderson:

"A BRIGHT PARTICULAR STAR is a play well-named. This historical drama about the family of Christian literary giant George MacDonald can also be seen as an apologia for Vancouver’s Pacific Theatre, who present its premiere. The play focuses on George’s daughter Lilia, whose love for truth – both scriptural and aesthetic, takes her to the boundary places of righteous Victorian society.

"Playwright Ron Reed’s gift for multi-threaded dialogue shines throughout, where unintentional confessions flow from misunderstandings and assumptions. A measure of his accomplishment is how much is left unsaid yet remains ever-present – rare is the script that writes silence so well.

"In a genre where there is ample temptation to do tedious explication and scene-setting, every witticism and crafted clumsiness advances the story. Firmly grounded in the period’s cultural context where bombast and sophistication lie closely together, we are introduced to a number of the influential persons who traveled in the MacDonald circle, including Mark Twain and Lewis Carroll. Appropriately, however, it is the shadow of Wm. Shakespeare that looms most large. The playwright’s interweaving of Shakespearean texts provides a play-within-the-play motif that is more than a riff on the Bard’s favored trick. It is a light hand that ably handles texts of such heft and uses them to provide both gravitas and illumination for these breathing characters.

[omitting some descriptions of the acting performance by this particular cast]

"Crowning all these performances is Rebecca de Boer’s Lilia, who embodies her character with a spirit of humility and wounded determination. Lilia’s preternatural talent is made all the more precious by the self-doubting vessel into which it has been poured. De Boer’s Lilia captures the pre-Raphaelite ideal of a young woman who at last touches beauty and, after being praised, is told not to partake of it. But against such banal powers of darkness Lilia’s star power is in her devotion to light itself, wherever it is found.

"Appropriate to the theme of faith and the arts, A Bright Particular Star is “safe” for Christians – there are no egregious sins committed on stage, only the mildest of cursing, and there are real and significant consequences for moral lapses. But what I imagine George McDonald would like most about this play is the lack of safety Reed provides for fusty self-satisfied religion, the deft manner in which he addresses those who would be kill-joys for Christ.

"Only someone who has been blessed by the overly safe environment of the faithful can understand the sugary daggers of well-intentioned betrayal that go on there in the name of the gospel. But for those who long to live that gospel in a world with the texture of art, they will find in this tender story a place where creativity and sacrifice kiss. A child of such provenance can only shine."

17 May 2006

The Book of the Dun Cow

Here's the book on Amazon

Earlier this week I had the amazing experience of reading The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, Jr. This unique book, written in 1978, is neither for children (too grisly, gritty, earthy, and painful—although I never knew a child who didn’t understand the sorrow of the world) nor for adults unless they have a streak of whimsy, but are also willing to face up to ugly evil, square in the eye, literally.

I have never read anything like this book before. It is a creation of great courage. First, Wangerin has the chutzpah to be entirely unoriginal—and thus has made a book all its own. He has taken stark good and evil and played them out in an almost predictable manner, unafraid of arrangements that could be called clichéd, trite, childish, overused. The Rooster is king of the coop and surrounding lands. The Hens, Dog, Cow, are domestic Good Guys. Snakes, lizards, dragons, and nasty hybrids are the Bad Guys. Mythology is freely used, and the story seems to ignore the post-modern cries for breaking narrative, acknowledging the weaknesses of language, undermining absolute reference points. The Book of the Dun Cow is, it might at first seem, hopelessly dated. Let me say rather, it is hopefully dated, it is searingly modern, it is genuinely classic and therefore timeless. It is a strange book, a great book, and bewildering book. It is a Medieval morality play, characters sharply drawn, clean-cut bestial caricatures—but they are more fully human than, oh, I don’t know, Dickens’s characters. It is in the diction of the Old Testament, full of imprecations, arguments with God, metaphysical questions shouted to the heavens, prophecies and denunciations and benedictions. It shares features with Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Animal Farm, Watership Down, Beatrix Potter’s stories, Paradise Lost, Inferno, yet is entirely unlike them. Full of talking animals, a small-scale realm unto itself, an epic of good-and-evil with Homeric battles, virtues and vices embodied in fur, noses, claws, wings, beaks…, great geo-political problems ensconced in a farmyard or forest. Unlike Narnia, there are no humans set against the animals, so the “talking animal” story is saved from any insipidity; it never feels condescending, rarely feels like a nursery tale. The creatures are real, three-dimensional, lovable and complex. The battles are heart-breaking, as bloody and horrific as those before the walls of Troy, yet the combatants are ants, sheep, rabbits, a dog, a weasel, against basilisks.

The story goes thusly: a Rooster, aptly named Chauntecleer, rules his land rather fiercely in a domestic, pompous, household manner. He is arrogant and lovable, bustling about in small importance. A Dog name Mundo Cani comes to him, mourning and weeping over his own ugliness and insignificance. Chauntecleer solves the difficulties of the coop with decision and fairness, such as fighting with Ebenezer Rat in the dark of the night over devoured eggs. Then we are given a cosmography, in one of the delightful, Medieval chapter titles, “in which Wyrm is described, and one or two things about him.” Wyrm is predictable: a foul, rotting dragon creature imprisoned inside the earth, longing to get out—and rule in hell or on earth rather than serve in Heaven, one gathers.

Meanwhile, in another part of Earth, the rule of another, older rooster, Senex, is declining. Wyrm speaks to him from inside the earth and finds his soul willing. So willing, in fact, that some kind of possession occurs, in which Senex gives his mind and body to Wyrm, and lays an egg. As one might expect, if one knows one’s mythology, this egg hatches a Cockatrice. Here Wangerin begins clarifying the mythology. Dictionary definitions often confuse cockatrice with a basilisk, Medieval practice made cockatrices out of bits and pieces of this and that animal. Here they are quite well defined. Cockatrice is a rooster with scales and a tail like a serpent, the sole son of the cock and therefore somehow of Wyrm, but then Cockatrice fathers thousands upon thousands of children on his hens, and these are serpents—Basilisks (here is one similarity to Milton: think of the end of book II, at the gates of Hell: Satan birthing Sin, then fathering Death on Sin, Death and Sin engendering thousands of monstrous bastards). A brave mouse stands up to Cockatrice’s evil, and is murdered for his courage. His wife flees with their seven babies. One hen dares to do the unthinkable: she smashes all of Cockatrice’s eggs while they are still in her body, aborting her children rather than give birth to these horrors.

Eventually, this mouse and this hen and then their troubles find their way to Chauntecleer, and his rule must mature into something able to face true sorrow. This suffering and valiant hen, the Beautiful Pertelote, becomes Chauntecleer’s adored wife. They have three chicks, and all seems well. Until the chicks are murdered, the river (full of Basilisks) rises, and war comes to the borders of Chauntecleer’s land. Then great risks must be taken, great sacrifices made, great and greater pain endured, and many revelations made. Chauntecleer’s crowing is unveiled in its full power: Crows Potens, which cow and turn back the enemy. Language, Wangerin blankly asserts in the face of contemporary criticism, has power, has essence. Beryl, one hen, “had an abiding respect for words. As far as she was concerned, the word for a thing somehow was that thing. Therefore she never spoke frivolously what she did not mean to say; and she surely never put into words anything which she did not wish to happen. For the words themselves could trigger it, and then it would happen. To say something was to send the thing itself out into the world and out of her control. It was to curse.” (p. 111) And it is, ultimately, Wangerin’s language that raises this story above the level of fairy-tale, bedtime-fable, children’s-story. The diction has the weight of the Prophets, the phrases the tone of another world. Humour, suffering, courage, and profound meaning are couched in the very words of this brilliantly written book. It is a novel unlike any other, and you must read it, read every word, to understand and know what words can do.

Where, in all this, is the Dun Cow? She is there, rarely, a presence, someone whom God sent as His envoy or vicar, a soothing and ennobling being whose very glance forces Chauntecleer to accuse, confess, reveal, and begin again. Only he seems to see her. Perhaps Mundo Cani does. Perhaps she does not exist at all, but is a dream or vision. Perhaps she and Mundo Cani are the same. I have not given you the ending, I will not give it away, but the Dun Cow is there and not there, has the final say and has none. But through her subtle influence, Chauntecleer and Pertelote talk the world back into sense and peace from nonsense and chaos. She is the vehicle of reasonable and healing language. She almost fills the position of Logos, or of the Voice Crying in the Wilderness (or the chicken-yard), prepare ye the way of the Word.

16 May 2006

Art for faith or faith for art?

I am currently struggling with idolatry. I suppose we all struggle against idolizing someone or something: mine right now is poetry. But not in the way you might suppose. I do not venerate poems or poets, do not put studying or reading poetry over the Word of God, do not spend time with poets or poetry books instead of in Christian fellowship or worship. No, this idolatry is far more subtle, insinuating, disguised under ostensible goodness. So much so that I often wonder if it’s wrong at all. Here it is.

I find I desire spiritual experience, knowledge, and understanding in order to write poetry. When I hear a good sermon, read a verse that stands out to my mind, make some mental connection between daily life or nature and God, have a good conversation about faith, etc., I immediately wonder how I can turn it into a poem. And I look for these sorts of occurrences—good sermons, devotions, conversations—as fodder for writing. I desire more closeness with Christ, I long to know Him more, I thirst for sightings of Him everywhere— in order to write poetry about Him. This is wrong-headed indeed.

Written out here, in plain words, I wonder how I could ever be deceived by so clearly sinful a thought-pattern. Using faith as a means to any other end—making God into a stepping-stone to something less than Himself?—I could never be that stupid. No, perhaps not, but in daily thoughts it seems even righteousness. Ah, that I would know my Saviour more and write that knowledge in profound, moving, beautiful, convincing words, why, that would be as good as evangelizing. And it would be a witnessing of sorts, wouldn’t it? Sharing the truth of what I have experienced in my faith to others—only I haven’t experienced it yet. Hum, well, I’d better hurry up and experience it so I can write about it so others can read it, and then I’ll be serving God…. You see how shrewd my own mind can be against itself?

Knowing this, admitting it straight out here, might be the first buttress against these so sly attacks. But how to put faith-for-poetry on its feet? How to put all my desire into knowing God Himself for His own sake without then trying to force that process into poetry? Probably by sacrificing the poetry, by cutting off the right hand. Not necessarily giving up poetry-writing, if that is one thing God has called me to, but expelling those thoughts of making the Lord serve my paltry work, and seeking Him with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength for His own sake.

C. S. Lewis in “Learning in War Time” talks about keeping the motives for learning/art/academia/the intellectual life
“pure and disinterested. That is the great difficultly. …we may come to love knowledge—our knowing—more than the thing known: to delight not in the exercise of our talents but in the fact that they are ours, or even in the reputation they bring us. Every success in the scholar’s [may I add, the poet’s] life increases this danger. If it becomes irresistible, he must give up his scholarly work. The time for plucking out the right eye has arrived.”

12 May 2006

Reading Pride & Prejudice

Read: Almost finished The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin. Wow! Thanks, Rosie, for the recommendation! Whew!

Listened to: Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera (unfortunately; would he had written more!).

How should Christians filter works of art through their spiritual lenses? There’s a fine line between over-analyzing art vs. simply taking it at face value without employing critical thinking as to the implications of the worldview represented.

On the one hand, some critics force works of art/literature/film into Christian boxes of meaning, such as searching for cross-shapes in photographs, trying to read Raoul in “Phantom of the Opera” as a Christ-figure, making The Matrix or Star Wars into allegories with a one-to-one correspondence to the passion narrative in the Gospel According to Matthew, etc. On the other hand, it would not do us or our students much good to say, “Isn’t Catcher in the Rye such a lovely story? Such nice people. OK, good, moving on to the next book….” Rather, we need to shine the light of the Gospel softly on what we encounter, observing the moral/ethical implications of the work.

Below is an interesting piece that highlights this issue. It is an example of an analysis that I believe stays right in the middle where it should be. A friend of mine recently adapted and directed a production of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. The production emphasized the themes she discusses through the acting style. For example, the most important line, by posture, timing, silence, lighting, was Lizzy’s “Until this moment I never knew myself”—thus pointing up the need for self-examination. Here is what the director wrote in the program:

Dear Friend,

If you have come to our show expecting a good, old-fashioned romance, I do hope you’ll leave us quite satisfied. But if you go home, having enjoyed it only as good romance—and nothing else—then I will have failed both you and Jane Austen.

Pride & Prejudice is a story filled with the 19th century marriage market: men and women, courting, teasing, proposing, and marrying; a mother with five daughters, vying for marriages that will settle her girls for life—and yet, as the title suggests, it is not primarily about romance itself. It is rather about the changing process that romantic love can enact upon a character; about two young persons, who though seemingly incompatible, by their very interactions with one another create compatibility betwixt themselves. The wonderful romance of this story is a direct outcome of the conflict and life-changing clash of worlds between a certain Elizabeth Bennet of Longbourne and the wealthy Mr. Darcy of Pemberley.

This story explores many themes, such as the practical necessity for a middle-class woman to marry, and the consequences of loveless marriages. Clerical positions in Jane Austen’s time were often given to people by wealthy land owners within a parish, and they were considered highly desirable situations for men without inheritance. Mr. Collins is an example of an appointed, yet hardly appropriate clergyman. This is perhaps a remark on the way the clergy could be set up without necessarily being suitable, or even godly. Other themes include the need for parental discipline, the excesses of gullibility, and the unreliability of first impressions.

All these and more await you in our play. It is my prayer that this moral story of pride and humility, criticism and self-examination may cause you to search your own life for the personal weaknesses that plague us all.

For the glory of God,
Anna Barshinger

07 May 2006

Embodied Theology

Here’s the question for today: How do you express your dearest doctrinal beliefs through the technical aspects of your art? How does your faith find direct, immediate expression in the arrangement of words, rhymes, meter, chord progression, melodic contour, instrumentation, modulations, light & shade, geometrical structure, repetition, focus & exposure, framing, choreography, chisel stroke, pan & zoom?

Embodied Theology

Friday afternoon I attended a lecture by Michael Marissen at Lehigh University in conjunction with the Bethlehem Bach Choir’s annual Bach festival. Then in the evening we attended a performance of one Missa Brevis and three cantatas—BWVs 76, 59 and 69. That’s a lot of Bach in one day!

The lecture was brilliant, and brought to the fore this issue that’s near the heart of my own artistic thought life. Without ever explicitly calling them such, the speaker emphasized the techniques by which Bach embodied his theology in his music. This is what I desire to do in my poetry, what the great artists have done forever. I think primarily of Michelangelo, Dante, Herbert, and the Inklings. (By listing these fellows thus, I am not making any claim to the equivalence of their greatness!) More on them below.

I’d like to summarize here some of the points of Marissen’s lecture in order to illustrate what I’m talking about. This will be rather music-technical, sorry. Skip to the bit on Dante if you’d rather read about literature. For his afternoon talk, Marissen chose to focus on Cantata BWV 75, with some briefer discussion of BWV 76. These are the first two works Bach composed when he took his job at Leipzig and truly began his career. They were, according to the speaker, conceived as a pair. They are much longer than Bach’s other cantatas, about twice as long, having 14 movements each (his cantatas usually range from 4 to 8 movements). No. 75 emphasizes justification by faith alone, without works—the central doctrine of Lutheranism. No. 76 focuses more on the good works that naturally follow a person’s conversion to Christ. Now, here is the first brilliant point Marissen made about how the text and music work together to express Bach’s theology through technical means.

The text of BWV 75 begins: “The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; Those who seek Him will praise the Lord. Let your heart live forever!” This is Psalm 22:26. I have quoted from the NASB, but Bach would have used Luther’s German translation, which says “Your heart shall live forever.” Now, you might wonder how this text has anything to do with justification by faith in Christ’s work alone. Well, Psalm 22 contains the verses “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” and “I am poured out like water, And all my bones are out of joint,” which a good Protestant recognizes as having been fulfilled in Jesus’ passion. So, his listeners would have known this was a Christological psalm. But he did not leave it at that. While the choir sings those words, the instruments play a French overture setting, and here’s where it gets brilliant. The French overture was invented during the reign of King Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” and it was played when the king attended the opera. The first half of the overture is slow and stately, with a regal dotted rhythm. This would play while the king walked in and through the opera house to his seat, in all his glory. Then the second half of the overture is a fast fugue. This would begin when the royal backside sat on its royal chaise. Bach and Handel used this form of overture in their sacred music to refer to Christ, the true Sun/Son King! (Think of the overture to the Messiah) So while the words are about relief from affliction, the music is about Christ the King, thereby making the statement that it is Christ Who provides the deliverance from suffering.

Here’s another example. The 7th movement of this same cantata is “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan”—“What God does it for the best,” or “Whatever God does is right.” This uses a famous chorale tune, if I’m not mistaken. Then the 8th movement is a sinfonia—an instrumental piece. It claims, without text, that Christ has come to set things right, and that Christ Himself is God, therefore whatever He does is right. How does it do this without text? Well, in two ways. First, the opening interval is the same as the opening of the 1st movement of the cantata—the French overture hail-to-the-king style stuff. So an ideal listener would remember how the piece started and say, OK, this movement is also about Jesus the Son-King. Then there’s a trumpet solo over the rest of the instruments, and it’s playing the chorale tune “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan”—“Whatever God does is right.” This, then, states that He is God, and whatever He does is right, and what He is doing is feeding the afflicted (remember the text of movement one?) so that their hearts shall live forever, because His heart does live forever! Pretty good stuff.

This is what I mean by “embodied” theology. An artist believes something, some statement about God, himself, or the created order, and puts this belief into the actual stuff of his creation. It’s one with the notes, the paint, the stone, the pixels, the rhymes, the meter, the brushstrokes. And the result looks effortless, natural. Bach’s sinfonia sounds just like a gorgeous piece of music with a nice trumpet tune over a rich instrumental texture. The tune works with the other parts according to perfect mathematical principles of harmony and counterpoint. Yet the choice of each individual component was guided by a doctrine: Christ is God, Christ lives forever, Christ enables His people to live forever. Wow.

Dante, I think, has given us the most complete example of theology embodied or embedded in literature. His entire cosmology is theology in physical form. His poem follows a theological structure. The simplest technique Dante uses is the pattern of 3’s. The poem is in three volumes, yet is one—a microcosm of the Trinity. Each volume has 33 cantos—Christ’s traditional age at His death—except the last, which has 34 cantos to make up the ideal 100. The form of the verse itself, terza rima, is a pattern of interlocking rhymes in three lines: a-b-a b-c-b c-d-d etc. Even the Italian ending itself, Alan Mandelbaum points out, is typically vowel-consonant-vowel, another sort of a-b-a trinity. Of course, the geography of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven are physical expressions of his belief. There are others, such as the Celestial Rose—his supernatural social hierarchies are integral to the poetry and to his spiritual thought. I could go on with this, and perhaps will in future, but for now I’d like to tie it back up to the beginning.

Michelangelo expressed his faith in the physical, intellectual, and spiritual powers of man in the very chisel markings on his sculpture’s great muscles. Herbert wound his doubts, humility, and poetic pride into the wreaths of his verse. Lewis put his scintillating, weighty, realer-than-real harder-than-hard imagined heaven onto a plain of glory, the valley of the shadow of life outside of Deep Heaven.

How do you do it?

03 May 2006

Worldview point #2

Read: Started Redwall—something some of my students like to read.
Listened to: Another bizarre Twilight Zone incident: It’s listener request day on WRTI, and I was pondering whether I should request Schubert’s Arpeggione sonata or the beautiful tenor-baritone duet from Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers.” Well, lo and behold what did they play but the Arpeggione? So I enjoyed that greatly, and thought how funny it would be if they played the Bizet. I think you can guess the punch line… they did!

Link to the original Worldview List

2. Schaeffer’s great maxim: All truth is God’s truth.

The idea here is simple enough in principle, but complicated and potentially dangerous in application. What this saying means is that if there’s anything true out there, it’s because God made the world and that pieces of truth comes from Him. What it implies is that Christians should not be afraid of any ideas “out there,” but should examine every concept and practice to see if it has empirical, rational, or psychological truth, and then evaluate it in light of God’s Word. I’m going to break this down into stages.

First of all there’s the theological basis. Biblical scholars tell us that there are two major ways that God communicates to mankind—or, put a different way, that all of God’s communications with human beings fall into one of two categories. They label these categories General Revelation and Special Revelation. “General Revelation” is available to all people; everybody gets it automatically by being born human imago Dei. Some may get more than others. In this compartment we may put such things as the Created Universe (Nature speaks truths about God, such as order, beauty, pattern, variety, fertility, regeneration, power, danger, height and depth, and so on), Human Experience (People speak truths about God, such universals as birth, death, love, trust, communication…), the Human Mind (Reason and Creativity), Stories & Myth (universal tales of death & resurrection, or Creation-Fall-Redemption.).

It is obvious, however, from this little list that these revelations are vague and easily misunderstood. Nature also tells of violence, destruction, and decay; human relationships also reveal hate, betrayal, and misunderstanding; the human mind also generates idolatry, fallacies, and perjury. General revelation, therefore, is not enough for people to get to know the Judeo-Christian God specifically, and is not enough for salvation.

Enter the second means or type of God-man communication. Special revelation includes Scripture, Jesus Christ God incarnate, the personal work of the Holy Spirit, and other personal revelations such as dreams, mystical visions, voices, intuitions, etc.

Now, how does this relate to Schaeffer’s saying? Well, what Schaeffer means is that anything that’s true out there is so because of general revelation. Or, everybody has some truth, some “divine light” (c.f. Lewis’s essay “Is Theology Poetry” in The Weight of Glory), so anybody might say or do or make something true.

What does this look like in everyday experience? Well, a Christian need not be afraid to look into the teachings of other religions to find some basic moral or spiritual truths. Furthermore, one may find spiritual or moral themes or resonances in statements or works of art that were never intended to be taken as pieces of theology. For example, the “Hollywood Jesus” found the gospel in his review of “The Phantom of the Opera” (with which review I have serious differences—Raoul a Christ figure??). This is often a favorite pastime of Christian thinkers about the arts.

I have been challenged by characters in novels, whether or not the character/author was relating his strengths to Christ: the intensity and dedication of Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, the calm selflessness of Rachel West and complete unconscious work ethic of Hester Gresley in Red Pottage, the sacrifices of Dickens’s Amy Dorrit and Sidney Carton, the familial love of Lionel Verney in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Elizabeth Bennett’s frank independence, Sherlock Holmes’s incisive intuition, Michelangelo’s burning genius as depicted by Irving Stone in The Agony and the Ecstasy…. The list goes on—you get the idea. I can delight, spiritually delight, in a piece of music or poetry written by a non-Christian (I hear God’s Sublime transcendence in Wagner’s Overture to Tannhauser or Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”).

Furthermore, all subject matter is open to a Christian author to use for purposes of truth. Myth is an especially fertile ground, in spite of its superficial opposition to Biblical truth. For example, I have used Semele as an instance of bravery and the fear of God, Daphne & Syrinx as stories of how God uses us in spite of ourselves, the Cumaen Sybil in a tale of God’s ravishment of His prophets with the power of His message, and so on.

Perhaps a good metaphor would be Messianic celebrations of Jewish holy days. Taking the bitter water of Passover as a symbol of Christ’s tears and our tears for His suffering, instead of the original symbol of the tears of the Israelite slaves in Egypt, is similar.

Scott Cairns talks about not forcing your poetry to tell truth in the narrow way you think you are supposed to understand truth. Don’t write sappy Sunday school poetry in trite God-talk clichés with worn-out morals tacked on. He enjoins us to simply strive for literary excellence and “let the Holy Spirit worry about truth.” Truth is not so small and fragile that I am going to break it by failing to end with a moral tag, or by stretching it into new diction and fresh metaphors and unusual settings.

All this boils down to appropriating the emblems of other religions and of the beautiful multiplicities of humanity, because the eternal realities they reference are more fully understood through Christian special revelation. Let us continue to observe, study, accept, and appropriate whatever truths are floating around out there, bringing them under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Stendhal Syndrome - Too Much Art

We were speaking of over-exposure to art in an earlier thread. I just discovered there's a name for a malady that comes from this: Stendhal Syndrome (or Stendhal's Syndrome) -- a condition of "dizziness, panic, paranoia, or madness caused by viewing certain artistic or historical artifacts or by trying to see [too much art] in too short a time." Named after the 19th century French novelist Stendhal (pseudonym of Marie-Henri Beyle), who experienced this overwhelming sensation upon visiting the art museums of Florence, Stendhal Syndrome has been observed and documented in many visitors to Florence since then. (Incidentally, in the course of reading up on this subject, I discovered a very useful online resource: ArtLex Art Dictionary.)

We live in a consumer culture that values more possessions, more experiences, more knowledge, more of everything. As I mentioned in that earlier thread, it is characteristic of the sin of gluttony. There's a New York Times Bestseller called 1,000 Places To See Before You Die. Glutton for books that I am, I bought it. Even browsing through that book makes me less satisfied with what I've already seen.

Sometimes less is more. We do better to get to know intimately a few key works of art or beautiful places in the world than lust after accumulating tick-marks on a list of all the greatest ones. I feel a bit sheepish now about having reeled off (in an earlier post) a list of the great art museums of the world that I've been to, as it kind of smacks of this sort of conquest mentality. It's still a great privilege, but I need to keep it in perspective.

I think I sometimes experience Stendhal Syndrome with the vast amount of art that is available for viewing now on the Internet, in books, and easily accessible in museums with how much traveling I do. I have more art books than I can possibly absorb in a lifetime. I don't think I've spent the time to get to know well even one of the paintings reproduced in them, yet I keep accumulating more such books on my shelves, as if that will make me knowledgeable about art. "Of the making of many books there is no end." Ah, to spend four hours in front of one great painting like Henri Nouwen did, and allow God to change me through that encounter, rather than flipping through the pages of a book of 150 of them.

01 May 2006

Holy Place

No matter where we go, we are in a holy place. Having recently come back from a trip to the Holy Lands I have been repeatedly struck with the holiness of God. He is holy above and holy near. One experience on the trip that encapsulated the force of this realization could be expressed by a description of our climb up Mt. Sinai.
Our group set off through the Sinai mountains about 2 am. The sky was pitch black, but the bright crescent of the moon and the sharp, white pinpoint stars actually made it as bright as day. All around us loomed stone mountains. The mountains in the Sinai are nothing like our mountains here; they are solid granite lumps, simply rock mountains. For hours we climbed up and up the winding stone path—layers upon layers of craggy mountains surrounding us on every side as far as the eye could see. After about two hours, we came to a place where we could see the summit of Mt. Sinai. How absolutely terrifying to think of the glory of God resting in “thunder and lightning flashes and a thick cloud upon the mountain and a very loud trumpet sound.” [Ex. 19:16] How could Moses climb all that way, since, “so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, ‘I am full of fear and trembling.’ ” ? [Heb. 12:21] When I whispered to one of my classmates, “Imagine going up this to meet God?” he responded, “I would just jump off the edge!” God is overwhelmingly awesome and holy. Even those mountains by themselves—without the fire and billows of smoke— struck me with a terror at God’s power. How is it that we can presume to meet with Him?
However, we reached the top just as the sun rose. How small the sun seemed! Like a tiny disk in midst of that heap of mountains. There on the top of Mount Sinai, we had the Ten Commandments read, a devotional, and singing of “How Great Thou Art.” Afterward, we were able to have a few minutes by ourselves on the summit. Undoubtedly, that was the most life changing experience of my life so for. To be in a place where God spoke to man face to face as one speaks to a friend! Our God is both all-powerful and all-knowing. He terrifies us with His transcendence and He and is with us in His immanence. His loving kindness endures forever. How can it be?
“To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity…” [II Peter 2:18]
Never forget that you are in a holy place.