Archives For The Arts & Culture

Malcolm Gladwell

My favorite podcast—since the day it launched—is Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History. I’m always excited when a new episode auto-downloads on my phone, and I rarely let an episode sit an entire day.

This week’s episode is entitled “The King of Tears,” and Gladwell’s premise is that country music is the best genre for connecting with people and eliciting emotional responses. It’s another fantastic episode, but about halfway through, I realized: “Uh oh. He’s wrong on this one.” Here’s why.

It’s the kind of mistake you’d have to be steeped in a certain tradition to recognize, and I happen to fit that demographic. I was raised on CCM (Contemporary Christian Music), a genre which shares the same fatal flaw as country music. And this flaw is tricky. It makes you think the music is powerful and moving, but it’s actually a shortcut. It short-circuits the creative process, and robs the listener of something vital.

What Gladwell loves about country is what people tend to love about CCM: it tells powerful stories. It gets into the details and draws you into a specific situation:

“The thing that pushes us over the top into tears is details. We cry when melancholy collides with specificity. And specificity is not something every genre does well.”

Ok. I’ll follow him most of the way on this point. Details matter for good art. To create in God’s world, we have to dig into the real STUFF of creation. Get our hands dirty. Work with the raw materials. That requires making abstractions concrete. It’s taking an idea and incarnating it—wrapping it in flesh. This is what it takes to make art live.

Travis Tritt

But I refuse to concede that the kind of specificity that country music traffics in is better—or more emotionally attuned—than what rock music (or other genres, for that matter)—offer.

For Gladwell, rock music is subordinate because it tends to be vague and repetitive in subject matter. (That’s an unbelievably broad generalization and far from true in many cases, but let’s let him run for a moment.) So he contrasts the intricate details of country ballads with the “vagueness” of the song “Wild Horses”:

“That’s how you get tears. You make the story so real and the details so sharp and you add in so many emotional triggers that the listener cannot escape…[It’s] far easier just to fall back on the bland cliche that ‘wild horses couldn’t drag you away.’ Country music makes people cry because it’s not afraid to be specific.”

But no.

Country music suffers the same flaw as Contemporary Christian Music, and this is what Steve Turner calls the fatal tendency to SPELL. IT. OUT. Art works by indirection. Art shows more than it tells. A sermon works because a preacher explains a passage or concept in detail. Understanding is a primary goal. But art leads you into contemplation. It’s a journey, an experience, a question, a “what if?”

Many country songs tell stories (sometimes good stories!), and you get to enjoy hearing the story unfold. You can be moved by the story, but you don’t find yourself reflecting, wondering, or soul searching. You’re moved emotionally in the same way that a story out of Chicken Soup for the Soul moves you. It’s all spelled out for you, and you get to respond in a sappy way.

This is the same impulse that has defined CCM. It has to be clear, it has to be positive, and it usually has to invoke God at least 2.5 times per song. There’s nothing wrong with clear communication, but as I’ve written elsewhere, co-opting an art form and making it a vehicle for a sermon diminishes the power of that art form (though it might remain interesting a sermon substitute).

We could also dismantle Gladwell’s argument this way: some of the most emotional music ever written is classical. Can Gladwell (or anyone human) listen to Mozart’s “Lacrimosa” or Bach’s Mass in B Minor or Smetana’s “Moldau” and not well up in tears? Please. It’s incredibly rich emotionally, but the words are not English. There is specificity, but it’s not specificity in the characters or references that create the emotion, it’s the specific relationships between the notes and tones that does the emotional heavy lifting. I’m sorry, but Gladwell’s premise is so demonstrably false.

So what’s the takeaway? I’ve written at length about this over the years, but: Christians ought to be among the most creative people on earth because of our connection to the Creator and because he has called us to continue his work of creation (when God placed the first humans in the garden, their task was to “work it and take care of it” (Gen. 2:15)). Yet tragically, we have in some senses come to be categorized by a genre of music that shies away from creativity, that values lyrical formulas over artistic craft. I lose interest with country music for this very reason. I love sweet little stories, but if there’s nothing to ponder, if everything has been spelled out and I’ve been told how to think and feel, if there is no mystery to capture my imagination, then I can listen to the song once and move on. And that’s a great definition for bad music.

I’m glad that Malcolm Gladwell tears up when he listens to Garth Brooks, and I thank God that many Christians are inspired when they listen to CCM. But we can do better. And thankfully, we often do.

[While this should go without saying, I’m obviously just sharing my opinion here. Please feel free to happily disagree. And if you want to learn more, I’ve written a ton about these concepts here.]

Brene Brown has become a rockstar! Her TED talks have amassed 28 million views, and three of her books are #1 best sellers on Amazon. The reason for her popularity is simple. Brene Brown speaks on a topic that deeply affects everyone—shame.

We all dread that painful sense of unworthiness and rejection, and work hard to hide our shame from others. The human experience with shame goes all the way back to the beginning of time. In the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve hid and covered themselves after disobeying God. Hiding and covering—the two trademarks of shame (Gen 3:7-8). Ever since then, the human family has been eager “to make a name for themselves” (Gen 11:4). So what is the cure for this pervasive dis-ease of shame?

Over the last couple of decades, shame has been the domain of psychologists. Both Christian and secular psychologists talk about empathy, vulnerability, connection, and friendships as solutions for shame. Obviously, those are all good things, but they address symptoms more than root causes.

The shame we sense before other people is a mere symptom of our larger problem—our shame before our creator, our disunion from God. Our sin exposes us to spiritual shame. Jeremiah confesses, “Let us lie down in our shame, and let our dishonor cover us; for we have sinned against the LORD our God” (Jer 3:8). Ezekiel used the imagery of harlots, the most disgraceful members of traditional societies, to expose Israel’s sin, “How sick is your heart, says the Lord GOD, that you did all these things, the deeds of a brazen whore. … So be ashamed, you also, and bear your disgrace” (16:30, 52).

The answer for this shame is not just vulnerability or empathy, but the work of God to remove our objective disgrace and to restore honor. God reverses our status from the pit of shame to a position of divine honor. This facet of the gospel is incredible news for the 80% of the world living in an “honor-shame culture.”

In summer 2015 I taught an elective course at EBC titled, “Theology of Honor & Shame.” During the break on day one, an elder lady graciously informed me that she was “skeptical of this honor-shame stuff.” Then during a break on the final day, the Asian-American gal sitting next to her thanked me, “I always assumed the more I wanted to follow Jesus, the more I had to become Western. But everything you said about honor and shame in the Bible explains my culture. I see how to follow Jesus as an Asian!” When the skeptical lady heard that, her opinion changed. Honor and shame are not just cultural or psychological categories, they are profound spiritual realities addressed throughout the Bible, and speak to the very heart of global cultures.

Students’ final assignment for the class was to creatively present the gospel in honor-shame terms. EBC student Zech Hogan made “Healing Honor”—a powerful (and short!) video. This video is an excellent illustration of the ultimate solution for shame—Jesus’ honor. Perhaps it too can get 28 million views! Enjoy watching!

I’ve written quite a bit about the arts, how they interact with our faith as Christians, and how they ought to be incorporated into the lives of our churches (see here, or here, or here). In my experience, Christians are becoming increasingly open to the value of the arts, but they don’t know where to start in learning more about what art is, how it functions, and how it might be incorporated into our lives and churches. If that’s you, I’ve got a great suggestion for you.

Silo Bible Teaching for Normal PeopleWe’ve recently created two Silo courses on the arts: Art & the Bible and Engaging the Arts. The beauty of a Silo course is that the whole thing is broken up into five minute videos. This means it fits your schedule, no matter what your schedule looks like. You can work through the material in a relatively short amount of time, or you can fit the material into the gaps in your schedule, however small and infrequent these may be.

The first course, Art & the Bible, lays the foundation for a Christian understanding of the arts. The course answers questions like: What does the Bible say about art? What does it mean for a Christian to interact with art? What is Christian art? The course contends that art is a gift from God that we must pursue with joy and discernment. The second course, Engaging the Arts, builds upon the Art & the Bible course by taking on a more practical feel and addressing issues of what it means for a Christian to create art that glorifies God and communicates with the surrounding culture, how art can be an avenue for our mission as Christians, and how art can deepen our churches.

From now until the end of 2015, you can take either or both courses for 40% off. That means that either class is $15 as an individual or $12 each if you take it as a group. Just use the coupon code thearts when you pay for the course. 

I’ve embedded the first two sessions of each course below, along with the outline of each course. Our prayer is that these courses will help you grow in your love for God and his gifts, and that they will provide a catalyst for you to incorporate the arts into your life, your church, and your mission.


 

Art & the Bible Sign Up Button

 

Session 1: Reclaiming Art as a Gift from God

Art & the Bible: Reclaiming Art as a Gift of God from The Silo Project on Vimeo.

 

Session 2: Art Is Deeply Humanizing

Art & the Bible: Art Is Humanizing from The Silo Project on Vimeo.

 

Session 3: What Is Art?

Session 4: Art & Creation

Session 5: Art in the Bible

Session 6: Romans 1 & a Theology of Art & Culture

Session 7: Truth & Suppression

Session 8: What Makes Art Christian? Part 1

Session 9: What Makes Art Christian? Part 2

Session 10: How Art Embodies Worldview

Session 11: Is Culture a Cesspool or a Playground?

Session 12: Developing a Christian Posture Toward Art

>> Sign up for Art & the Bible now, or start with a Free Trial.


 

Session 1: What Does the Bible Say about Art?

Engaging the Arts: What Does the Bible Say About Art from The Silo Project on Vimeo.

 

Session 2: How Art Communicates, Part 1

Engaging the Arts: How Art Communicates, Part 1 from The Silo Project on Vimeo.

 

Session 3: How Art Communicates, Part 2

Session 4: The Dark Side of Art, Part 1

Session 5: The Dark Side of Art, Part 2

Session 6: Creating Art, Part 1

Session 7: Creating Art, Part 2

Session 8: Bad Art, Part 1

Session 9: Bad Art, Part 2

Session 10: Art & Mission, Part 1

Session 11: Art & Mission, Part 2

Session 12: Art & the Church, Part 1

Session 13: Art & the Church, Part 2

>> Sign up for Engaging the Arts now, or start with a Free Trial.

In the church, we handle glory on a regular basis. Every time the church gathers, we talk about topics like: the greatness of God, the fact that God became a human being, our longing for redemption and our inability to save ourselves, the fact that Jesus has conquered death, the reality that God himself lives inside of our human bodies through his Spirit, etc. In other words, the church’s conversations are about the most profound, awe-inspiring, life-transforming, tear-inducing, joy-invoking topics imaginable!

And yet we are numb. The fact that I could type the above sentences without falling on my face and/or break dancing means that I’ve grown callous to truths that ought to be overpowering me at every moment. Think especially of what this is like for pastors: They stand in front of the faithful week after week and talk about the greatest mysteries, struggles, and triumphs in the universe. How can we keep these powerful truths fresh? How can we continue to see and value the glory that the Christian life puts us in contact with at every moment?

Makoto Fujimura: Consider the Lilies

Makoto Fujimura: Consider the Lilies

One significant answer is this: we need artists in our churches. We don’t need only artists, but we do need artists. Art is a gift that God has given humanity so that we can explore the significance of life. Textbooks and newspapers present us with the facts of life; art presents us with the meaning and significance of those facts. If art is God’s gift (it is!) and if this is what art does (it does!), then how can we afford to ignore the role of art in our churches? (We can’t!)

Pablo Picasso: “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

J. R. R. Tolkien: “We need to clean our windows so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity.”

Madeleine L’Engle: “Perhaps art is seeing the obvious in such a new light that the old becomes new.”

As a Bible college professor, I spend a lot of time in classrooms talking about theology and life and ministry. But some of my richest times in those same classrooms come when I teach my class on Christianity and the Arts and my students share the art they’ve created. It takes those same powerful truths we talk about and pushes us to view and handle and (almost) taste them in ways that bring them to life again. The insightful artist can, in a sense, restore sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, feeling to the numb.

Speaking as a pastor to other pastors, Eugene Peterson says:

“Everyone needs artists. Pastors especially—and especially this pastor—need them, for we spend our lives immersed in forms of glory, in the world of salvation become incarnate in Jesus. If because of overfamiliarity and too much talking about we no longer see the glory contained in the form, no longer touch the salvation in the body and blood of Jesus, we are no longer pastors. I want to tell all my pastor colleagues, ‘Make friends with the artist. Let him rip off the veils of habit that obscure the beauty of Christ in the faces we look at day after day. Let her restore color and texture and smell to the salvation that has become disembodied in a fog of abstraction.’”

I do think that some churches try too hard in incorporating art into their services. I often get the impressions that churches “get artsy” just so that they can appear “relevant” or “with it” to younger generations. I’m not advocating that we drape every inch of our church buildings in art or that pastors don skinny jeans and adopt the persona of a bleeding heart artist (but it’s okay if your pastor does).

Donal J. Forsythe, "The Long Night," 12 box construction. (http://www.donaldforsythe.com/boxes/longnite1.html)

Donal J. Forsythe, “The Long Night,” 12 box construction. (http://www.donaldforsythe.com/boxes/longnite1.html)

I actually don’t think that incorporating art into the life of our churches should be all about what happens on Sunday mornings. Perhaps it should mean hosting artistic events. Certainly it will mean giving artists regular opportunities to share their art with people in the church. It’s really not about a strategy or a model; it’s about valuing and discipling the artists in our midst and imploring them to use their God-given gifts to enrich our lives and our worship. We should also go so far as viewing our artists as missionaries and sending them out into the world with Bibles and paintbrushes for the sake of our common mission.

Becoming a more artsy church is a lame goal. But acknowledging the power of art and the value of artists is essential. And until our churches figure out how to incorporate the gift of art and the gifts of artists into our common life, we will be depriving ourselves of a powerful means of tearing away the veil and bringing ourselves into regular contact with glory.

For more on this, click here.

For an extended list of solid books on the subject, click here.

iV

Mark Beuving —  October 28, 2015 — Leave a comment

When I teach my Christianity & the Arts class, the students have to create and present artistic projects. These are always a high point in my semester. We spend weeks talking about art, how it relates to God and the Bible, and the role it plays in the mission God has given us; then the students put their God-given creativity to work. These are some of the richest, most challenging, and most worshipful times I ever spend in our classrooms.

Last night, one of my students, Emily Scheibenpflug, shared a project that “speaks” eloquently to one of the issues I revisit from time to time on this blog: our relationship with technology (here’s a recent one). Without further ado, here is Emily’s drawing, which I have presumptuously entitled iV (the lowercase i is intentional).

iV

I’m sharing the drawing here because I believe it merits contemplation. It forces us to wrestle without offering a simple answer to the dilemma. As I’ve said in past posts, we are rightly uneasy about our relationship with our devices. I’ll leave you to do the actual contemplating, but here are some questions Emily’s drawing raises for me:

  • How digitally connected am I?
  • How digitally connected should I be?
  • Could this be my arm, or is this merely a warning/question for others?
  • Is the iPhone giving or taking from my personhood?
  • What is the iPhone putting into or drawing out of my arm (assuming the image fits me)?
  • Do the suggestions of a hospital setting indicate health or addiction? Is the iPhone there medicinally, or am I needing some sort of amputation?

All of these questions are extremely important for us to consider on a regular basis with respect to our electronic habits. This drawing moved me because it eloquently addresses all of them, without providing any specific answers. And this is the power of art: it suggests, asks, and challenges. What the art “does” to me depends on what is going on in my life at the moment.

So what do you see? And how should you respond?

 

 

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