Tuesday, October 23, 2007

yeah. it's pretty long.

When was the last time you saw a photography exhibit in the foyer of your church?

Not just a display of pictures from the latest missions trip. But something you'd see at the state fair or at a museum.

I'll get back to that in a minute. First, consider the first words of the Bible: "In the beginning God created everything." Before we know anything of God's mercy, justice, anger, love, or plan for history, we know him as the Creator of heaven and earth. He is A Creator. He Makes Stuff. And in one of the most gloriously transcendent (and somewhat ironic) gifts of all time, he has bestowed on humanity one of his own characteristics: we, the created, long to create. We are made to create because God is -- in his very first words to us -- The Creator. What could be more perfect than endowing that creation with the very reason we exist in the first place?

Before I go on, you might be thinking that you're not creative or not talented. I'm pretty sure no one got overlooked in this. We're all given differing levels of creativity, as well as areas of particular skill or enjoyment. We're not all meant to be symphonic composers, Broadway thespians or professional photographers...but we all enjoy and find fulfillment in some way of creativity. It could be one of those areas or it could be bringing order to a page full of numbers, gardening, designing buildings or rockets or microchips, building web pages, writing, dancing, organizing, singing, acting, carving, decorating, landscaping...so many things can fall under this broad umbrella of creativity. (If you still don't see yourself as creative, I'd venture to say that you just don't realize it, or you haven't come across it, or that it's been stifled in some way.)

Because it is one of God's own characteristics, the gift of creating is a gift all on its own. I don't think it's a stretch (or maybe it is) to say that art is the same way. Remember those verses I put up before? I think they tell us that God loves beauty and art for their own sake: "for splendor and beauty" as King James says. The sashes and robes of the Jewish priests weren't all useful, and they weren't even all symbolic...because they didn't need to be. They were made for beauty. There is a huge case to be made, I think, for appreciation of art -- beauty, expression, aesthetics, design -- as an end in itself. Thus I am re-thinking what I said before: that art must convey truth. It often does, but I think it does not need to.

The world does a grave disservice to the gift of art, as well as the gift of creativity, when we treat it purely as a medium for our own messages and agendas. Sure, there are places for most media to convey specific themes or be persuasive, like documentaries. But for other, more subjective art forms, the conveyed message might be an emotion, a feeling, a fleeting memory, a virtue, a relationship...things that are far more abstract than informational. I suppose that can be included in my idea of truth, but maybe a better word would be real. Emotions certainly are real. And maybe (an experienced artist could tell me) there is a difference between the personal and the public art, a difference between what is made to be purely an expression of self, and that which is meant to communicate something to others. Someone could address that.

Still, there's the idea that some very legitimate art isn't beautiful, and didn't require skill to make. Maybe where it is not beautiful, it makes up for it by being true. And maybe if it is neither, it's okay too. It has still been created. Does that make sense? Maybe I'm still missing something. But it seems like if we are really supposed to appreciate art for its own sake, then it doesn't even need to carry a message or be anything else. This is when you might have the process of the artist being worthwhile as well. (I'd personally appreciate it quite a bit more if the art was beautiful or truthful, but that's just me.)

So I could just stop there, but I want to try and apply these ideas (dangerous, I know) to the state of the arts in the Christian realm. At least from what I've seen, too many Christians fall prey to the common temptation of treating art simply as a medium to convey a message We might think that the only reason it must be "well done" is to be taken seriously -- to be heard and accepted. This is bad enough, but there is an added offense of keeping the artistic abilities that do exist within Christendom solely personal, individualized. Did you remember ever seeing a photography display in the back of your church? I would guess never. This is because, in my opinion, the body of Christ as a whole does not generally appreciate art and creativity unless they are used a) in worship music; or b) as a spoon to feed the gospel to unbelievers. The arts are usually nothing except the necessary packaging to get people to listen. Don't get me wrong - I'm really grateful that that potential exists, and I'm glad God's ideas can be used to promote God. There's a place for those types of ministry, to be sure, and one wonderful element of the arts is that they can convey messages effectively. So don't think I'm knocking VBS skits. But since art and creativity are already gifts from God, why do we not celebrate or at least appreciate this divine gift of creativity for what it is - nothing less than a manifestation of God's personality? If it's really a gift, it doesn't need to be added to. From what I've seen, art is commonly thought of by Christians as useless/neutral at best ("Art? That's entertainment and decoration"), and degenerate at worst ("Just look at Hollywood"). We have an idea of "christian art" that sways our thinking about all the arts.

Why is there even such a thing as "Christian art"? I will say that if something worthy is well done, it already has God's appreciation. If art and creativity are truly gifts to be celebrated in their elementary forms, then it doesn't matter if the creator is a believer; God, in his unbounded love and grace, doesn't give gifts only to his own children. We have also deceived ourselves into thinking that there is no true talent outside of Christendom, and that if something would be glorifying to God then it must originate in the mind of a Christian. Yes, I would imagine that God takes the greatest delight when art is made with God's love for it in mind. But we should not think of ourselves as too good for "secular art" because, in a way, there is no such thing. Art is God's already; it was his idea and every time it is used, he takes delight. Art does NOT have to have a cross on it or a Bible verse stamped under it to be "godly art," as a stroll through the Christian bookstore would have us believe. And if it is beautiful, as much art is, it already reflects the beauty and truth of God. Every good thing comes from God, so even if it is not "Christian art" (or "Christian music"), if it is something worthy well done, it can't come from anywhere else.

I can hear you all protesting now, and I concur: there's much to dislike in modern entertainment and art culture. The effect of human immorality is pervasive and God is saddened when "his idea" is used to promote (portraying it is another story) sin and selfishness and the truly degenerate nature of fallen man. There is truly much to oppose, but that doesn't mean the arts are immoral. And we surely don't have the right to come up with our own definition of what art is.

So, what have Christians done in response to the corruption of God's revelation? Passionately rebeled against this perversion of God's gift to mankind? No, we do what we always do. We retreat. We run away. We might be genuine in our motives, but essentially the message is "Fine, we're going to have our OWN movies, our OWN music, our OWN plays (and schools and businesses and organizations and politicians and everything else), so we don't have to look at the trash everywhere else." (I am not saying I necessarily disagree with any of those, but that's another blog.) When we do this, we, quite necessarily, slap the label of Christiantm on things so we will know what's in OUR domain (and so the Christiantm Stores will know what to carry). But folks, listen. When something is already A Christian ____TM, does it have to be any good? No! It doesn't NEED to be good because it has already been sanctified by a Christiantm Company, and because it carries the gospel message (or at least some watered-down version thereof). Thus we end up with mediocrity in almost every area of creativity. Our pathetic Contemporary Christian Musictm exists more or less to provide an sound-alike alternative to Secular Music, and therefore has no need to improve its overall creativity or skill level; as long as you accurately parrot the mainstream sounds, Christians will listen to you and your "positive message." And even if you can't sing (Dave Crowder Band, anyone?), you can still be a Worship Bandtm, using your horrible voice to glorify God. Right? I constantly have to add disclaimers and this paragraph is no exception. I do think there is a place for music that is explicitly Christian, that carries the gospel message and calls people to live rightly. But I am just saying that it doesn't have to do any of that to be good music, or to have God's ultimate appreciation.

I could probably write for another hour about the state of Worship Music in general. I don't think God necessarily dislikes trivial songs if they are genuine, but I sure don't think he appreciates them as much as the ones that, for example, took years to compose. This is getting away from the main point of this blog, so I won't dwell here. But just take a look at the acoustic-style songs usually sung at church or youth group, and you will see that the majority (not all) of them are very poorly written, and take very minimal ability to perform. Even those complex tunes to older songs are being redone until they can be played with three chords by an eleven-year-old. Are people genuine? Yes. Does that mean everything they do is automatically approved to the highest degree? NO! Why do we settle for mediocrity and downright poorness in the place where we should have the highest standards of all: our worship of God? Why do Christian singers re-record the SAME SONGS over and over again? I can't help but think it's just because the market is good for those songs. I'm not doubting their sincerity in worshipping God with their music, nor the sincerity of those who buy it. But from an artistic and creative standpoint, it is mindless drivel.

Do you see what we've done to ourselves? "God just wants your heart." "Can't judge it if it's genuine." If it's Worship, it already has the stamp of Righteousnesstm, so it doesn't need to improve. The result is, almost everything that is called Christiantm ends up being of poor quality. We claim to serve a God who is imaginative and creative. We are surely not too good for that ourselves. Yes, sincerity is very important, but why do we not see that God loves our creativity, the art we make, and the skill it takes to actually do it well?

If there's any doubt in your mind that God wants skilled workers, go read this passage. Read this one too. And this one. This verse, this verse, these verses, this verse, and this verse all speak of the appreciation God has, and that we should have, for skillful work within the church. Over and over, the message is, if it is done to God, it needs to be done well. Worship Music is the poster example for something that is not generally done well, yet claims in its very genre-title to be all about God. Something is very wrong with that picture.

(I don't want to overlook the fact that churches often provide opportunities for everyone to hear musical talent. "Special Music" is an essential of most churches, giving vocalists and musicians the opportunity to share the skills they have developed, using the beauty of worshipful arrangements. I am not downplaying that at all. I just wonder why there are not parallels for all kinds of art. Where are the photography exhibits? Why does it sound absurd to have those in the church?)

Let's think about the art available in our Christian Bookstores. The few pieces of painting-artwork that I've seen are mostly just those glowy Kinkaid pictures in gold frames, maybe with Bible verses tacked onto the bottom. Never mind that there's nothing inherently "Christian" about them until they have that little plaque with a tiny fragment of a "pretty verse." (You know the ones.) Then you might have some eagle paintings, a few other "inspirational" Bible pictures, mini-statues of the cross and fishes and everything Christiantm. (Maybe I'll write another day about Commercial Christianity. Or someone else could pick up there.) And any more, as far as entertainment in the Christian Bookstores goes, "Christian" has come to mean little more than Family Friendly. "If a four year old can't watch it without being traumatized, you'd better not watch either." Where is the creativity, the celebration of God's gift? Why does it all have to be explicitly Christian? It doesn't. What we have done is turned a delight of God into a commercialized conveyor belt.

Back on track here: are you using your talent merely as a spoon to feed people your message? Or do you appreciate your craft for the essential of what it is: a revelation of God, straight to your heart? Is your mind preoccupied with "How many people can I convince of Message X in this [book, film, poem, song, photo, sketch]?" or do you enjoy the process and the product as gifts in and of themselves? Again, I'm not saying there is no room for conveying truth and opinion through art. I'm just saying it is far more than a medium, far more than the spoon that holds the real goodies. Art is something that God appreciates because he is an artist. He delights in the works that we create, and the discipline it takes to hone a skill. Are you good at the art you produce?

I'll probably re-read this in a week and disagree with some of it. But that's part of what YOU are for: to help me see where I need correction. I hope you see that I am honestly trying to figure this out, and I especially hope you tell me if I'm wrong. Hopefully this will get you thinking. Thank you so much for reading both parts of this little series...it is truly an honor to have you read what I have written, and even take the time to let me know what you think.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

for glory and for beauty

You shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty. For Aaron's sons you shall make tunics; you shall also make sashes for them, and you shall make caps for them, for glory and for beauty.
-Exodus 28:2, 40

i really don't know how to start this. my writing skills are a little musty. the nascent joy of photography has recently superceded my drive to compose with words, and composing with light and color has suddenly become far more pleasing. the result is that i have forgotten how to write (and have neglected my blog). :) so please forgive me if this is unclear or disorganized. i'll do my best.

lately i have been thinking a lot about art, beauty, creativity, and christianity. my mind keeps coming back to those verses above, i think because they demonstrate that some things exist only to be beautiful, and that those things are approved by God. so here are some of my thoughts about all of this.

not only is beauty a reflection of God, i would say that it glorifies him in merely being beautiful. beauty doesn't have to be symbolic or explicitly meaningful to be valuable. Keats might have been a little carried away when he said "Beauty is truth, and truth is beauty...that is all you need to know," but i think he was onto something. beauty isn't only truth, but beauty reflects truth, because neither truth nor beauty can come from anywhere but from God...and God is truth. not every truth will be beautiful, because sometimes truth is ugly (for example: the crucifixion, the selfishness of humanity, the reality of failure or betrayal). but everything that is beautiful is true already.

how is this idea of beauty related to art? disagree with me if you'd like, but i'd say that art, in a similar vein to beauty, always attempts to capture or communicate an element of truth. art points to truth just like beauty points to God. often, a work of art will use beauty or aesthetics in general. so beauty is not the same as art, but rather art can use beauty to promote its message.

side note: it's a point well taken that art has recently tended to neglect beauty and treat ugliness and absurdity as the major truths to be conveyed. (This viewpoint is not totally illegitimate, but neither is it modern.)

since we're talking about art, there is another element to art that can't be ignored. it is skill. God gave two men the broad skills they'd need to work on the art in his temple. he appreciates the skill involved in creating and if it is done for him, it must be done well. so i would say that art reflects God only to the extent that it is truthful and is done skillfully. in other words, it needs to be good...not just done well, but something worthy done well. so the idea behind the art needs to be truthful, and it also has to be communicated well. BUT...going back to what i said before: it still doesn't have to be pleasant. some truth is just plain horrible.

an example of this would be a painting of a gruesome rape or murder. perhaps the artist was highly skilled, masterfully weaving color and emotion to communicate the horrors of the scene. who would want a painting like that? it might be communicated well, but the thing being portrayed is ugly. yes, but i would say that it is still art, because in all reality people are raped and murdered. and it is a highly skilled work: is there anything missing? does this mean my definition is off? (i didn't say i'd buy it.) tell me what you think. i'm told that Rembrandt's paintings often convey tragedy or sorrow, yet he is one of the best artists in history, and many of his works are biblically-themed.

ok, so let me try to distill all of that (i know it's a little confusing). beauty is not the same as truth, but it points to truth. art is not the same as beauty, but art (like beauty) tries to capture or communicate truth, often using beauty as the means to accomplish that end. art must not only point to truth, but do it in a skillful manner to be truly "good" and to be the most glorifying to God. and although truth is often effectively conveyed through beauty, a work of art need not be beautiful to be truthful.

so assuming you both read and comprehended everything so far, you are probably asking, what's the application here? think about these questions. if art is something worthy done well, is the church any good at it? are you any good at it? is entertainment all to be considered as art? here's a clue as to the content of my next post. try applying that principle -- something worthy done well -- to the mass-production "christian art" that hangs on our walls, or the cookie-cutter "christian worship music" coming from our iPods, or the "christian movies" that barely pay for themselves. if you couldn't tell by now, i rather think the state of "christian art" is pathetic, as is the existence and use of the term "christian art"...and i'll talk more about that (and human creativity) in my next post.

in the meantime, please tell me what you think of this, especially if you disagree. these thoughts haven't been "bounced off" anyone yet...so i might be all wrong. i hope not, because this took a long time. :) talk to me!

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