20 September 2012

Make Ugly Art

In our adult Sunday school class, we are watching a series of lectures by R. C. Sproul on the Christian and the arts. I'm summarizing them and writing my responses. Here is an index to these posts. Today's post is a response to Sproul's suggestion that we use the “objective” classical standards—proportion, harmony, simplicity, and complexity—to judge art, and to the simplistic interpretation that this means “make only beautiful art.”

Make Ugly Art

In response to Sproul's proposal that we utilize the four Classical standards for order as a means to judge art, a lively discussion erupted after the lecture. There was a general feeling that Christians should only make and enjoy art that is “beautiful” in a very narrow, simplistic sense. I think only two points need to be mentioned here. They are two objections to this idea.

First: my “Flaming Fundamentalist for Peace” friend (an Ekphrasian, jazz pianist, computer science professor, Occupier, and self-described Libertarian Socialist) pointed out that art should be subversive. Art should be at the forefront of protesting injustices, advocating for social and political change, pointing out problems, and motivating for improvement. He spoke positively of Pussy Riot, claiming that what they did was morally courageous, as they were intentionally putting themselves at risk to protest against their lack of freedom.

Second: I pointed out that art made and enjoyed by Christians does not need to avoid ugly, bad, disturbing, or violent content. What matters is not whether such content exists, but how it is deployed. What matters is whether the evil is being shown as evil, or whether it is there just to make a sensation or increase sales. To sum up: IS THE ART REVELING IN UGLINESS, OR REVEALING IT? As Christian artists and consumers, we should make and support art that shows sin for the ugly thing it is, not art that pretends nobody sins.

19 September 2012

Sproul on Art - Report #3

Sproul on the Arts Report #3
R. C. Sproul: Recovering the Beauty of the Arts
Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder”

In our adult Sunday school class, we are watching a series of lectures by R. C. Sproul on the Christian and the arts. I'm summarizing them and writing my responses. Here is an index to these posts. Today's post is a summary.

Sproul began by talking about “subjective” vs. “objective” standards for art. I've been fumbling with some ideas of subjectivity and objectivity in one of my responses, too, but in a different way. Instead of turning to “science,” as I'm trying to do, Sproul turned to “Classical” culture. First he spent some time denigrating our current culture, claiming that it denies objective truth and absolutes. Well, sure it does, but James K. A. Smith and others
have written about the positive side of postmodernism, poststructuralism, relativism, and pluralism for the Church, so I don't think we should get too exercised by this anti-objectivism. But anyway, I'm supposed to be summarizing, not responding.

Sproul went on to say that obviously there are subjective responses to works of art, and personal preferences for one work or another. But, he said, the question is about NORMATIVITY vs. RELATIVITY, and that the question turns on the word “ought”: Is there an art that Christians OUGHT to appreciate?

He did not answer the question outright. Instead, he talked about the words “value” and “ethics,” saying that traditionally, we have though about the ethics of a choice, which is objective, and now we think about the value of a choice, which is subjective. That seems a bit simplistic to me—but let me proceed.

He added to this question another one about “Art Appreciation”: Should we transcend our personal preferences?

Then he reframed the question as a difference between CHAOS and COSMOS: chaos is unintelligible, disordered; a cosmos is a place with an inherent, systemic, knowable order (the kind articulated by empiricist and rationalist philosophies). Then he talked about logic and chaos theory, which both as “Is there an order?” Both presuppose a formal, rational, harmonious structure. He mentioned Plato's Academy, over the door of which was a sign reading “Let none but geometers enter here,” meaning that therein the study of Form was pursued in its mathematical relationships.

So then he introduced Aristotle's Classical “Primary Necessities for Order,” suggesting that they were thus the objective standards by which we can judge Art:

17 September 2012

Sproul gets novels wrong

Here is an index to these posts about Sproul on the arts.

Yesterday morning's lesson by R.C. Sproul was deeply disturbing. I can't remember whether a church service has ever left me weeping with fury before. I believe that it was just exactly the wrong lesson for our particular church to hear.

Sproul wrote off the entire genre of the modern novel as, and I quote, “vulgar, salacious, and obscene.”

I beg to differ. Sure, there are novels that fit this description. And there are portions of others that contain material of that nature. So, although he didn't say this right out, he seemed to be implying that Christians should ignore and avoid an entire genre, an entire body of cultural creation, because of some content in some of the works. This seems to me a dangerous kind of Christian ghetto-ism. In another talk, he said, “Rap music celebrates violence and unrestrained sexuality.” Certainly not. Some rap songs and some rap artists celebrate violence and unrestrained sexuality, but others point out the horrors of just those things, and others celebrate good messages, such as victory over addiction.

My experience suggests that the majority of “conservative,” “evangelical”—or, as a fellow Ekphrasian calls us, “flaming fundamentalist”—Christians need to hear just exactly the opposite message. I have observed that some of my fellow church-goers tend to be already too afraid of the “worldly” influence of movies, music, and fiction. So even though individual Christians may need to be counseled against consuming cultural products that are not good for them, I strongly believe that the majority need to be encouraged to engage more and more—to engage at all!—with what is being written right now.

Here is a tangent. The pastor shared with me that he has personally known people who became addicted to pornography and ruined their lives, and who first encountered “salacious” material in novels, even in “high” “literary” novels such as Lady Chatterly's Lover, and then they sought out worse and worse material. Well, if he says that happened, I'm sure it did. I tend to think that someone who is so driven to seek out the naughty bits of books will abuse any material he comes across, and that the blame is to be laid on that reader rather than on that text. And I am certain that such a response is the exception, not the rule.

But to use such a case to write off an enormous body of valuable work is going too far.

Furthermore, there is this silly idea among Christians (I was deceived by it myself for a long time) that what is new is therefore bad.

OK, another little tangent here. Tolkien believed in a kind of reverse evolution, a de-volution, if you will, in which everything was decaying from its original perfection and gradually getting worse and worse. I can see that value of that as a working theory. But it seems to go against theological principles, taught by my reformed church, about original sin. I have been taught to believe that people have always been just as bad and will always be just as bad. No earthly utopia is possible, but neither will humanity get so bad that they will be nearly wiped out by another Noah's Flood again, until the end of the world. So then how does it make sense to say that today's novels are worse than literature of the past? It doesn't. It's not an accurate description of literary history, either. At one point Sproul said that the ancient Greeks did not allow murders to take place on stage, because they had a moral sensitivity against that. My theatre-director friend and I said to one another right after, “Lysistrata?” Not much moral sensitivity there. And then she told me that later on, in the Roman theatre, slaves were actually murdered on stage to depict the murders in the story. That puts The Hunger Games in perspective.

So obviously I think that Sproul was wrong in writing off The Novel as a genre that Christians should read and write. I've got two novels cooking on the back burner. A young Ekphrasian is sharing a marvelous novel with us, chapter by chapter, each month. So, bring on the novels!

Now I'm going to talk about a few categories of novels that Christians may possibly want to consider reading. Please stick with me here, because I'm going to ask your help with something directly at the end of this post.

Here are several categories of novels I recommend Christians consider reading.

I. First, there are novels that contain very disturbing content for the sake of making an essential point or teaching a powerful moral lesson, such as Lord of the Flies, 1984, The End of the Affair, The Road, The Age of Innocence, Crime and Punishment, or The Picture of Dorian Gray. I think Christians who have the stomach for the violent content really should read these, because they teach important lessons about the horrors of war, society without restraints, voyeurism, lack of respect for human life, gender inequality, corruption, etc. So adult Christians should read these, think about them, write about them, and converse about them with one another and with their non-Christian friends. What other novels would you add to this first category: disturbing with a good moral lesson?

II. Second, there are novels that contain content that should be troubling to a Christian, and which do not use that content to teach some moral lesson compatible with Christianity, and yet which should be read by Christians because of what they reveal about culture, or because of the impact they are having on society, or because of the conversations they could start, or simply because they are so well-written and -structured that to skip them would be to miss out on a great artistic blessing. Possession by A. S. Byatt is my current favorite example of highly-skilled craft; The Da Vinci Code might be an example of a cultural conversation (although that's a bit out-of-date now). I'm not sure if The Blind Contessa's New Machine by Carey Wallace should fit here or elsewhere: it's written by a Christian, yet contains an extra-marital affair, so “my kind” of Christians would be offended by it, yet it's a jewel-perfect example of the novelist's craft, and not to be missed. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, the anti-Narnia series for children, is so well-written and influential that Christians should be familiar with it in order to appreciate its literary power and counter its spiritual evil. I would say all of Ayn Rand's works fit here. What other novels are contrary to a Christian worldview, and yet are important for us to read for craft or for cultural conversations?

III. There are also those that reveal actual problems in the world, whether historical or contemporary problems. I'm thinking of Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe; Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton; Beloved by Toni Morrison; The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini; Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (actually haven't read this one yet); All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque; A Farewell to Arms by Hemingway; The Jungle by Upton Sinclair; or What is the What by Dave Eggers. Which do you think are the best social-exposé novels in this category?

IV. Finally, there are novels that are main-stream, popular, recent, acclaimed, and so forth, that are purely edifying. These have very little potentially offensive content, and they serve to enrich the lives of readers.

Obviously in their time the works of Charles Dickens served as powerful exposés of social injustice. Jane Austen's painted a portrait of an idealized society based on mutual respect. Jane Eyre dramatized Providence in action. Those of the Inklings translated theology into imaginary worlds to help present doctrine in a fresh light, embodied in characters and places to make them palatable again to jaded readers.

And now?

Well, here is where I really want your help. I asked the pastor if I could put together a list of ten or so very recent novels that are edifying, and share that list as an antidote to Sproul's unbalanced viewpoint. But I want to start slowly. I don't want to scare anyone off of novels,so I'm trying to compile a list of the best recent novels that, say, a 10-to-13-year-old could read without encountering troubling content, so that I can share this list with my fellow congregants as kind of “baby food.” I would hope I could follow up with some “solid meat” later. For right now, then, I'm looking for recommendations of more books like these: 
the Harry Potter series
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (2004)
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2004)

My problem is that I've only recently started reading recent works! What about The Help? Have you read that? How is it? Good writing? Any questionable content? How about books by Joyce Carol Oates? Have any of you read The Greek Passion? How is it? Or have you read recent/later works by Brett Lott, Annie Dillard, Ron Hansen, Shusaku Endo, Edward P. Jones, Eevelyn Waugh? What do you think? 

Finally, I plan to do a later follow-up list of works that are a little more mature, but still just really, really edifying overall, like Unveiling by Suzanne Wolf (2004). Suggestions for this list?

OK, so, what other novels can I add to my “baby food” list? What others should I add to my “first solid meat” list? Remember, for the first list there can't be any content that would be potentially offensive to the conservative mind (which pretty much just means sexual content; violence is usually OK to some extent, and dangerous ideas are hardly a problem at all), and the overall message has to be consistent with the most obvious Christian teachings. Oh, and I think that realism is preferred over fantasy, which I know is a weakness of mine, so “realistic,” edifying, recent novels are what's wanted!

That's where I have to start. I hope I can go from there.

Sproul on Art - Report #2

Sproul on the Arts Report #2
R. C. Sproul: Recovering the Beauty of the Arts
Art for Whose Sake?”

In our adult Sunday school class, we are watching a series of lectures by R. C. Sproul on the Christian and the arts. I'm summarizing them and writing my responses. Here is an index to these posts. Today's post is a summary.

In Church history, there have been various reaction against formalism, externalism, and ritualism. The OT prophets & the 16th-cent reformers spoke against these abuse of art. But the OT prophets were NOT iconoclasts. They did not want to get rid of the externals; the forms and externals of the Temple, etc., were ordained by God. The problem was not with ritual, form, or externality, but with what people were doing with them.

Any ritual may lose its meaning by mindless repetitions. But the cure for formalist/externalism is not to get rid of them, but to RE-FORM them and re-associate the Word to the Sign.

God always adds Sacrament to Word. He adds images, dramas, festivals, physical elements, to the verbal. As soon as you lose the verbal content, the externals degenerate into something godless.

The OT prophets also kept the externals because—you cannot get rid of externals. There is no possible escape from art.

There is no escape from externals in worship, because worship always takes place somewhere.

Every form is an art form. Every art form communicates something.

The most functional piece of furniture, for instance, still has elements that are purely for style, for aesthetic appeal, that are not strictly necessary for functionality. Our clothing does not just hide our nakedness and protect us from the elements, but also expresses style. It is not purely utilitarian. God designed the robes of the priesthood for beauty. When we say we want to look nice, we are making a statement about art.

All forms are art forms, and every art form communicates something.

If I walk into a church that is completely plain and unadorned, that communicates a message to me! Removing “churchiness” from a building is itself an artistic, interpretive choice. A Catholic Cathedral evokes an overwhelming sense of awe and of the sacred. The form draws the spirit heavenward. The dark entrance leads into a sanctuary full of light, communicating the idea of the light of the presence of God. It is full of symbols of transcendence and holiness.

Does it matter where we worship Him, as long as we worship in spirit and in truth? No, as long as you really are! Don't forget that even a tent or a hovel communicates something! Remember, no matter what you do, you are choosing an art form, and it is communicating something to the people around you. The very smell of the church building can communicate the scent of death, or a smell of fresh life!

So each church needs to ask: Why do we have the forms that we have? What are we communicating?

There is a current crisis in the church, thinking that “art is worldly”; but you can't escape art! The forms are added to the verbal content and the intellectual ideas we are conveying. Every church as a liturgy, every church has externals, every church has forms.

The issue is whether the forms are good forms, whether they are beautiful forms, and whether they are truthful forms. THE QUESTION ISN'T WHETHER OR NOT WE WILL HAVE ART: IT IS WHETHER WE WILL HAVE GOOD ART, OR BAD ART. Whether it's beautiful, or ugly; symphony or cacophony; order or disorder. Therefore, it is important for the Christian community to study the Beautiful. God is the foundation of truth because God Himself is True. God is the foundation of goodness because God Himself is Good. God is the foundation of beauty because God Himself is Beautiful. He Himself is an artist.

15 September 2012

Theme 4: Excellence Trumps Taste

If I gave a 5-talk series on Christians and the Arts, the fourth theme would be:
4. Excellence Triumphs over Taste

[part one]

The worship wars are ugly and divisive. I understand this, and I don't want to exacerbate them by insisting for “my taste” over somebody else's “taste.”

I'll bet you're thinking of MUSIC right now, especially in the context of a discussion of the arts in church. Yes, matters of taste do tend to get most passionately expressed in discussions of worship music, but I also think they get in the way of deeper conversation on many of the arts.

You see, there are many differences between taste and standards. The differences are important. I strongly believe that discussions about the inclusion of various works of art in worship should almost ignore taste and should instead focus on standards.

Taste is superficial, individual, personal, subjective, and cultural. Taste most frequently reveals itself in the choice of genres and of individual artists. Someone has a taste for, say, Broadway show tunes or Schubert song cycles, just as someone has a taste for buffalo wings or fine claret. They may be a matter of genetics or of social construction: where, when, and by whom the person was raised and educated. They can be developed through education, exposure, patience, and the enthusiasm of others. They are strictly sub-cultural. They have to do with likes and dislikes, rather than with quality.

Standards are also cultural, but in the sense that they have evolved from the collective wisdom and experience of an entire tradition. They arise from a culture and are therefore “universal” within the (large) limits of that culture, and so are not sub-cultural, but are rather one of the more important forms of cultural capital.

While some “standards” may still be subjective, they are communally subjective, rather than individually. For instance, measures for evaluating whether one composer's counterpoint is more skillful than another's are not purely based on what a critic or scholar “likes”: they are based on how well the composer handles the rigorous rules of his craft, which in turn are based both on cultural concepts of what sounds good and on strict mathematical relationships between intervals and so forth.

Let me repeat and strengthen that last point: there are some elements of standards that are scientifically objective. Some have to do with the proportions of sound waves or architectural lines; some with the realities of human anatomy; some with the physical properties of paints and canvas and brush strokes. For example: One may judge an artist's drawing of a human nude based on, among other this, how correctly it renders the realities of human anatomy. Of course there are other criteria as well, and there are cases in which realism was not a goal. But there are cases in which that standard may be applied, and it is at least partially objective.

Here is another example. The human voice, especially the untrained singing voice, has certain physical realities, including limitations, that the songwriter must take into account. For instance, there is something called the “>passaggio
,” a place where there is a kind of “break” or shift in the singer's voice as he or she sings upward through a scale. Trained singers learn to negotiate this change in register smoothly, and to sing above it with strength and power. Untrained singers—the congregants in any church—cannot negotiate it as well. This is simply a fact of anatomy. Therefore, songwriters who are writing for congregational singing MUST shape their melodies so that the melodic line does not hover around or stay in the passaggio. The melody may use those notes, but usually as high points in the musical passages.

Here is another example. Because of the physics of breath and voice, spoken words always have both pitch and accent. You cannot speak a word out loud without giving it a musical pitch (whispering is precisely speech without pitch). In English, pitch usually doesn't matter: a word does not change meaning if you say it on a higher or a lower note. Therefore, composers who are setting English texts to music do not need to take pitch relationships into account for expressing the meaning of the text; they are free to use whatever pitches they deem beautiful or dramatic, etc. There are languages which are>tonal languages
, such as Mandarin Chinese, in which speaking a word higher or lower, or with a rise or fall in pitch, does change its meaning. Obviously composers working with those texts need another whole set of compositional tools.

But English does, of course, use stress—accented and unaccented syllables—in the making of meaning. The word REcord is different from the word reCORD; CONtent is not the same as conTENT. So a songwriter needs to set the accented syllables on the strong beats of a measure. This is, then, an “objective” standard that can be applied to the evaluation of music.

Let me circle back around again to my distinctions between “taste” and “standards,” and I'll continue using worship music as a sort of touchstone for examples and application.

Taste determines which genre is used in worship (say, praise songs vs. hymns): choices of taste should be made by the worship committee based on the demographic of the congregation (age, education, geographic location of origin or present residence, ethnicity, etc). All genres are valid for use in worship, and the demographic of the congregation—its collective “taste”—should determine which genre(s) a particular church uses.

But standards determine which pieces (from within that genre) are chosen for worship, and how they are played, with what instrumentation, and by whom: choices of standards MUST be made by professionals and highly-trained amateurs in the field, not by pastors or by congregational surveys regardless of what people “like.” Those who know about the setting of texts to music should evaluate songs based on how well they join meaning and melody, accents to measures. Those who know about the singing ability of a congregation should choose songs that fit the untrained human voice. Those who know about the history of music should decide on the instrumentation that best fits each piece. And so forth.

OK, I'm planning to follow this up with another post about the theological importance of excellence, but that's almost enough to be going on with today, eh? Here's the question of the day: What standards for evaluating art are “objective”? Which are nearly objective? And which are culturally subjective, meaning that they have been created by a very great number of highly-educated people over a very long time, so that they have come to be accepted and applicable to all the works within that tradition?

12 September 2012

Theme 3: Tragic Sense of Life

If I gave a 5-talk series on Christians and the Arts, the third theme would be:

A Tragic Sense of Life

My experience suggests that Christians without much exposure to the arts (whether by choice or not) tend to think that a Christian approach to the arts means only enjoying art that is redemptive. To put it more strongly: there is a myth that Christians should only watch movies and read novels that are “edifying,” “uplifting,” etc.


The Christian narrative is a Creation-Fall-Redemption story, sure, but—two things:

First, we don't have to tell the whole story in each work of art. It's perfectly legitimate for Christians to make and enjoy art that tells just the Creation part, or just the Fall part, or just the Cain-killing-Abel part, or just the Levite-cutting-up-his-concubine part—because:

Second, we are not living in the glorified, renewed-Eden, paradisical future our faith promises. We are living in the really nasty, horrific, in-between of the time when we are saved, but not in heaven. Our redemption is accomplished, but not consummated. So there are perhaps equal parts nasty and nice, or some mix, in every person's life, in every day, in every action. I would go so far as to claim that Art that ignores our fallenness is less Christian than art that's only about redemption.

And here's a point that came up in discussion after one of Sproul's lectures. Actually, two related points.

First, a good use of art by Christians is in protest of the awful inhumanity of human to human. It is OK to make (and read/watch/listen to) art that shows or describes really, really terrible things: persecution, genocide, the loss of love. It's OK to do that as a protest against the awful deeds. Or:

Second, a good use of art by Christians is just to show things as they are, without reveling in the awfulness. So it's OK to depict sexual immorality, violence, hatred, cruelty (within reason) in order to expose its awfulness. It's not OK to depict them just to make more money or get a bigger audience.

And this is what Gregory Wolf calls “the tragic sense of life.” (I don't believe he originated the phrase, but I encountered it in his works). This terrestrial existence is an awful tragedy. And whatever your theology of predestination and so forth, whenever we suffer, God suffers with us. That's kind of the point of the Cross. Jesus suffered. The Holy Spirit prays with us, groaning more deeply than we do ourselves. How can we leave that out of our art and call ourselves Christians?

This is true, by the way, whether the artist is him/herself a Christian. I had a little debate with a church friend about All Quiet on the Western Front. He was saying that it was “totally hopeless,” and he meant is as, well, not exactly an insult, or a reason to ignore the work, but (I'm trying to interpret him here; D.B., if you're reading, please correct me) possibly as a reason that Christians should either not read it, or offer something more hopeful à la Les Mis in its place. I argued that the point of the books was how hopeless and horrible war is, and that that's a perfectly legitimate argument to make, whether or not the author was making it from a Christian viewpoint. Also, if Remarque himself was without hope, then it was honest for him to write a hopeless book.

Therefore, for all these reasons, we should read/watch/listen to—and also make—those works that show the fallenness of life.

So here's today's Question for you: Can you name a work of art that you think adequately, movingly engages with a “tragic sense of life” in a way that is true and meaningful?

11 September 2012

Theme 2: Sunday is not the rest of the week

If I gave a 5-talk series on Christians and the Arts, the second theme would be: 

Sunday Morning is not the rest of the week 

I think that R. C. Sproul has not done quite enough (in his series of lectures) to distinguish between the use of arts in the worship service and the use of arts in the daily life of Christians. This is, I think, a great source of confusion and debate. For instance, in his third talk Sproul made some really derogatory, reductive comments about John Cage. These showed that he does not understand Cage's music, but they also served to bolster the all-too-common Christian attitude that writes off any artistic products that are radical, difficult, unusual, or even just new. In fact, Cage's ideas about music and the created order are beautifully consistent with Christian theology—whatever Cage himself might have believed.

So I think a lot of this sort of silly talk could be avoided if we clarified what we mean by Christian engagement with the arts. I am the last person to suggest that we should play a piece by John Cage in a worship service. Even if the piece itself could be conducive to a worshipful atmosphere, the cultural baggage that his work has accrued over the years means that his compositions are more epicenters of debate than “just” music. In other words, there's so much stuff stuck to his pieces that they would most likely distract from worship rather than contribute to it. We do have to be really careful what works of art we use in the Sunday morning service.

On the other hand, I believe that there are few few works of art, music, literature, etc. that individual Christians and Christian families should NOT be engaging with in their daily lives. They should be reading everything, watching everything, listening to everything. There are exceptions, of course, when a work crosses the line into the pornographic or the gratuitously violent, and so forth. And there are individuals who will have to be more careful than others in their artistic consumption because they are particularly prone to temptation in certain areas. And children need to be gradually exposed to works when they are mature enough to process them.

Yet I think that Christians of the sort I know best—the kind of “Reformed,” “Evangelical” Protestant brands—are far more likely to err on the side of REJECTING works they should be experiencing, rather than affirming works they should be rejecting.

I think everyone in my church needs to do some good, hard listening to John Cage, and some reading in what he was expressing in his work.

That's just one example. I think Christians should be reading the great classics of “Western” literature and the pop novels on the best-seller charts (within reason). I think we should be listening to Mozart and Terry Riley and Buddhist chants and folk songs from all around the world. I think we should be watching blockbuster films and indie award-winners. I think we should be educating ourselves about posthumanism and the multiverse theory and the human genome and Derrida and the Arab Spring.

Basically, I think we need to be the most well-informed people in any context in which we find ourselves, including the arts scene. We should be the makers and the evaluators of culture, not either passive consumers nor frightened ghetto-dwellers. 

So, Question for you: What cutting-edge contemporary works of art (any genre) or current ideas do you think Christians need to be engaged with? Why?

10 September 2012

Theme 1: “In the World”

If I gave a 5-talk series on Christians and the Arts, the first theme would be:

In the World” 

The point of this talk would be to emphasize the first part of the saying “Be in the world but not of it.” As far as I can gather, these exact words do not occur in the Bible, but the principle is derived from such verses as John 17:15-16, in which Jesus says, "My prayer is not that you would take them out of the world, but that you protect them from the evil one," and II Cor 10:3, "For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does." 

don't know how yours is, but my church is in no danger of being “of” the world. Far from it. On the contrary, my church is quite withdrawn from the world. We do not engage in social justice. We do not seek to meet the needs of people in our city. We are not involved in community outreach. And we certainly are not connected with the local arts scene or local intellectualism. 

So my point would be to encourage Christians to get out in the world. We are commanded to do so! Be in the world! Get out there, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, go to concerts, walk through the art museum, listen to lectures, attend plays...

What's more, these two types of community involvement—in social justice or “goodness” and in the arts or “beauty”—can go beautifully together. For instance, the Allentown Symphony has an El Systema program that gets at-risk kids playing music rather than doing drugs. There are lots of other examples. 

Question for you: Is your church “in the world,” or does it tend to be more isolationist? If it is in the world, how does it engage with the local arts scene?

Index to "Recovering the Arts"

I have begun writing little summaries of a series of lectures by R.C. Sproul on the arts, and also blogging some of my responses. Here is an index. 

R. C. Sproul: Recovering the Beauty of the Arts  

#6: Literature and the Christian
#7: Architecture

#8: Drama and Cinematography

#9: Images

...and my responses:  
If I could give a series of church lectures on the arts

#4: Excellence Triumphs over Taste, part 2

 #5: Form and Content

09 September 2012

5 church-and-art themes

If I could give a series of church lectures on the arts....

We've been listening to a series of video lectures by R. C. Sproul on the arts in Christian theology. They're very good, but they are not particularly practical, and they are a bit reductive and isolationist. As a result, I was fantasizing this morning about what content I would include if I were given, say, five weeks of Sunday School or Sunday evening services or something in which to talk about the arts. What would my goal(s) be? How would I organize the series? What themes would I emphasize? What content would I include?

Well, my goal is obvious. My purpose would be to encourage the people of my church to get involved in greater cultural engagement. I would have succeeded if the Christians who heard me talk were no longer afraid of the artistic products created by “the world” and were educated about the major ideas alive in the minds of 21st-century American intellectuals and artists.

Before I proceed: What is the biggest problem in your church's interaction with the arts? If you could give a series of talks on the arts, what would your goal be?

My first thought was to organize such a series generically: one each on literature, music, visual arts, theatre, and “misc” including dance. But Sproul spent the first three lectures laying theological groundwork and is now going through the genres. I wouldn't want to repeat.

Then I thought maybe I would organize it around “the philosophical foundations and implications of the arts.” I won't, but more on that below just so I can indulge the concept.

Before I proceed: How would you organize a 5-talk series on the arts at your church?

I decided that if I ever got such a great opportunity, I would organize the series around themes. Each theme would be designed to correct a misconception or fill in a gap in my particular local church's ideas about and interactions with the arts. So now I'm going to release these themes one per day this week, followed by one about the arts and philosophy. I hope that these short, provocative posts, each with a question for you, Dear Reader, might spark some conversation. So stay tuned tomorrow for the first theme, and then later I'll post an index to the themes.

Here is an index to these posts.

05 September 2012

Sproul on Art - Report #1

The church I attend, of the Orthodox Presbyterian sort, is watching a series of lectures by R. C. Sproul on "art and theology" in its adult Sunday School class. This series is called "Recovering the Beauty of the Arts." There have already been four sessions, so I am behind in reporting on them. Be that as it may, here's a quick little summary of the first video.

The first lecture is "Lesson #1: Aesthetics in Recent History." That's rather badly titled, because this lesson includes a discussion of the arts in the Old Testament. Especially for a Presbyterian, that's not really recent history, but pretty much all of human history. In this lesson, Sproul gave a whirlwind tour of some attitudes towards the arts in church history, including:
- Old Testament condemnation of idolatrous uses of art and commendation of proper uses
- the 9th-century Iconoclasm controversy
- visual art serving as "books" for the illiterate in the Medieval European church
- the Reformation reviving a new iconoclasm; Luther thought people were addicted to images and needed a "time out" from visual art
- the Puritans [over-]reacted to the three misuses of artistic expression in worship.

Those three misuses are:

I'm not actually sure how they differ from one another; they all sound kind of the same to me.

But I skipped what Sproul started with, which was a great little talk about Goodness, Truth, & Beauty. He talked about that fact that various church traditions tend to emphasize one to the detriment of the others. I quite agree. My own "Reformed," "Evangelical" tradition definitely prioritizes "truth" (doctrine) over "goodness" (practice/morals/social justice) and both waaaaaaaaaay over "beauty" (the arts). Sproul said that the three above-mentioned abuses all substitute Beauty for Truth. The abuse of forms, he said, led to suspending their use.

Note that he only cover Church History. He didn't talk about how Romanticism, with its worship of the artist, may also be responsible for contemporary Christian fear of the arts. We may be over-reacting by failing to adequately appreciate artists. He did address the fact that Christian artists (by which he meant Christians in the arts -- which is quite a different animal, let me tell you) feel cut off from the Christian community. This is often because of a misconception that art is "worldly." Historically, of course -- and he noted this -- the Church has produced the greatest artists [of the "West," which he did not mention].

One of the greatest lines in his talk was "God Himself is Beautiful." Indeed. That alone is reason for us to make great art.

More later! Meanwhile, which does your church emphasize? Beauty, Truth, or Goodness?