Archives For The Arts & Culture

This entry is part 16 of 18 in the seriesBook of the Month

To this point, the books we’ve recommended as our book of the “month” have been popular level books—books that the average reader can get through without too much difficulty. This “month,” I’m recommending a book that will require more effort from the average reader, but I think it’s worth it.

The book is Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith and it’s the first in his “Cultural Liturgies” series. I think this is an important book, especially for those of us who are convinced of the importance of “worldview.” Here’s why.

Smith invites his readers to view our familiar world in an unfamiliar way. One poignant example he explores is the shopping mall. We believe the mall is a purely secular location that we visit on our terms to pick up items we need for our own reasons. But Smith paints the mall in a religious light (or rather, reveals the inherently religious nature of the mall, hence the term “cultural liturgies”).

Mall Cathedral

The moment we enter the mall, we gain a sense of transcendence from the vaulted architecture, the skylights, and the lack of windows, which divert our attention from the sea of cars outside and the mundanities of daily life. In this place, time is marked not by the ticking of the clock (which you’ll be hard pressed to find) but by cycle of festivals and celebrations for which the “cathedral” is regularly re-adorned. Oversized photographs on the walls and mannequins in shop windows function as icons, embodying for us a vision of the “good life,” reminding us of what our “worship” will produce and calling us inside to “taste and see.” When we decide to partake of this vision of the good life, we approach the altar, item(s) in hand, and the priestly salesclerk guides us in consummating our worship, sending us out with a benediction (“Thanks, have a great day”).

On one level, this is all nonsense—the mall is not a church. But Desiring the Kingdom argues that this interpretation of the mall is profoundly realistic. The world around us shapes us, not simply at the level of our intellect, but at the level of our desires. Commercials don’t convince us of the logic of buying their products, they appeal to our desires. They make us want it. And in doing so, Smith argues, the marketers are exhibiting a more biblical view of humanity than most churches hold.

Our society recognizes that we are not primarily thinkers. Rather, we are primarily lovers. We do what we do not because we follow our logic in every case, but because we are driven by desire. Think about it: Do you drink Starbucks coffee (or the more obscure and therefore more trendy type of coffee that you consider far superior to Starbucks) because you intellectually believe it is so much better than the alternative that you’re wiling to spend $2 for a small coffee and $5+ for other drinks? No. You drink Starbucks because your desires have been trained, not just for the flavor, but for the atmosphere and experience. It’s not necessarily illogical, but it’s deeper than logic. It’s about a vision of the good life that resides more in our gut than in our brain.

PrintAnd here’s where Smith’s argument gets very important. The world is busy shaping our desires. Meanwhile, the church fights back by filling our minds. We fight love with facts. This is where the worldview approach often falls short. Descartes famous saying, “I think therefore I am,” summarizes our default view of humanity. We are thinking beings. So put the right knowledge into a person’s head and he or she will behave accordingly. And there is some truth here. But we all know it’s not the whole picture. We don’t upgrade to the new iPhone because we believe the new features are worth the price. Our desires have been trained to despise our (months) old iPhone and long for the newest.

Smith’s solution is worship. Our desires are trained through worship, not just ideas. We need to shape our worldview, but we also need to shape our longings. We need formation, not just informationWe need to desire the kingdom. In this regard, Smith advocates liturgy, but in a broad sense. He’s not saying we all have to become “high church” in the sense that we all do responsive reading and observe lent. But he does argue that those things can play an important role in shaping our desires. Biblically speaking, we are whole beings. We’re not disembodied minds, we are embodied creatures. So involving our senses in worship, engraining deep habits and rituals into our routines can help to train our desires. It’s not just about thinking, it’s about worship. It’s about love. The marketers understand this, the church should as well.

That’s Smith’s overall contention, and I’ll warn you that he’s persuasive. As I said, it’s not the easiest book to read, but it’s also not the hardest. Smith intentionally took a middle path: the most scholarly discussions are moved to the footnotes, but the overall discussion is still meant to contribute to higher-level debates. Anyone who has had a year or more of college education should be able to hang with Smith’s arguments, and his writing style continually emphasizes key points.

This book has been very influential for me, and it’s shaping the way I view my role as a Christian, as a parent, as a church member, and as an educator. I would say this is one of the most important books I’ve read in a long time. Give it a shot.

 

In a sense, only God creates. Only God can “stand” in the “middle” of complete nothingness and call as-yet-non-existent things into being. We call this creation ex nihilo: “out of nothing.”

So we can truly look at every aspect of our world and say, “God made this.” But as every parent knows, it gets more complicated when your children start asking, “Did God make cars?” “Did he make your computer?” My fumbling answers to these questions have gone something like, “Well, yes. He created the metal that the car is made out of, and he created the minds of the people who put the car together.”

Only this week have I begun to realize the true genius of God in this respect. It was John Frame who helped me think this through as he wrote about human choices: How is that we go through life making decisions based on our desires, and yet the Bible is still able to insist that God ordains all that comes to pass? It’s an old question, and I wasn’t expecting any fresh insight.

But Frame began talking about “our participation in God’s creativity.” He says,

“Our choices among possible alternatives image the choices that God himself has made in eternity, and they serve as the means by which God actualizes and rejects possibilities in history.”[1]

When we go about creating in God’s world, we are making choices, and in doing so we are acting like God, following his image, which he placed within us. But it’s bigger than us simply making choices. It’s that as we create in this world, God is creating. He is working through us to create. Our acts of creation are both ours and his—we are making the creative decisions, and in doing so we are playing out God’s perfect eternal plan.

The Creation of Adam

All of this is guaranteed to hurt your brain if you try to comprehend it entirely, and the mere raising of this topic sends people scurrying for their copies of Attacking Arminians or Countering Calvinists. (If those aren’t books yet, they should be.)

But this is why Paul is able to thank God for the Philippians’ partnership in ministry. The Philippians chose to work together with Paul; Paul saw their involvement as the working out of God’s plan. This is why Joseph was able to point to the same event (being sold into slavery) as both the evil intention of his brothers and the good plan of God (Gen. 50:20).

Now let me cut the urge to argue short: I’m not interested here in settling the fee will vs. predestination debate. What I find fascinating here are the implications for human creativity. Ultimately, we create because God made us in his image.

“Much about the divine image is mysterious, because God himself is mysterious. But among other things, there does seem to be something in us analogous to God’s creativity…”[2]

Dorothy Sayers looked at the context of the “image of God” passage in Genesis 1:26 and says that the only thing we know about God leading up to this is that he is the Creator. All he’s done in Genesis 1:1–25 is create. So when God sets out to make a being “like himself,” he seems to be creating another creator. Sayers identifies this as at least a part of what the image of God means.

Here’s why it matters. God has a plan for history. God formed this world with his words and his fingers, and he has not stopped speaking, he has not stopped shaping. Everything—everything!—from the largest imperial expansion to the slightest shifting of the smallest grain of dust is seen by God, known by God, captured in the interest and attention of God.

And as we step out into this world to create, to shape, to dream, God is stepping out to shape the world through us. When Steve Jobs created the iPhone, God was shaping his world through Jobs. (The same goes for whoever invented the Android, everyone calm down.) When I hug my daughters, God is wrapping his arms around them. When I work, play, sing, sleep, and eat, God is working out his plan for this world. My choices (at least, so my experience tells me), his plan.

(As an aside, let me just acknowledge that this gets much darker when we ask where God is in the evil moments. For example, where is God when an innocent man is wrongly accused, beaten, and murdered? But according to the Bible, God is still working out his plan in those types of events: Acts 2:23, 4:27–28.)

So be assured, God is still working in this world. And he is all of the time working through us. We are his image-bearers, his mini-creators, his world-shapers. Let’s be careful to shape his world in ways that fit his mission and highlight his glory. And let’s be confident that in all of it, God’s plan is being worked out, drawing ever closer to its good and glorious culmination. God has never taken his hands off of his world. He continues to work in it in deeply mysterious and incomprehensible ways. And he also continues to work in our creative decisions, shaping his world through our hands and feet and mouths.

 

 

[1] John Frame, Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2013) 837.

[2] Ibid., 836.

Over the 4th of July weekend, I spoke at the Audio Feed Festival in Champaign, Illinois. I was invited last year and was excited to speak again this year. The fact thatAudioFeed-8 I agreed to come back shows what I think about the festival. Yeah, it pretty much rocks.

The festival is only two years old, but its roots have a rich history. AudioFeed was born out of the widely popular Cornerstone Music Festival started by the Jesus People USA in 1984. In 2012, Cornerstone announced that this would be the last year of the festival, and AudioFeed said lets keep rocking! So for the last two years AudioFeed has been hosting a music festival where dozens of bands and several speakers come together to enjoy God’s gifts of creativity lavishly poured out on his image bearers.

Yes, it’s a “Christian” music festival—but don’t think CMA. This stuff is different. And in my mind, refreshing.

Artists from several musical genres rock out (or scream out or rap out, or whatever) in a way that might not seem “Christian”—that is, you won’t hear most of these bands on K-Love. The Homeless Gospel Choir is a one-man band who writes satirical songs about nationalistic Christianity. Justin Driggers has tats and dreads and sings emotionally dark, yet real and redemptive, country songs. Timbre shreds on a harp. Sean Michel, whose signature beard puts Phil Robertson to shame, lights

Peter Furler, former lead singer for The Newsboys.

Peter Furler, former lead singer for The Newsboys.

up the stage with deafening guitar riffs, powerful lyrics, and rich sermons between his songs. My Epic, Listener, Flatfoot 56, and several other popular bands drew some loyal crowds. Noah James—a largely unknown Christian artist—sent my heart to heaven and my knees to the cross as he left me spiritually dazed after proclaiming the gospel through some of the best “Christian” music I’ve ever heard. His song “Heaven Is Far” punched through my chest, ripped out my heart, and slammed it at the foot of the cross. Joy collided with frustration over the fact that Noah will probably never break through the political and consumer-driven walls of CMA, which is unfortunate for those who love theology, the cross, and unpredictable music.

Although I rarely visited the “Black Sheep” stage, I could hear the screaming from across the fairgrounds, which freaked out my daughter at first. One band screamed out David Crowder’s “How He Loves Us” just after the lead singer gave his testimony about how Christ rescued his soul from hell. I can’t say I love the hard-core screamo stuff, but I can appreciate someone screaming for Jesus. If we meditated on what we’ve been rescued from, I think we’d probably scream too. Grave Robber, a “horror punk” band, showers the audience with blood launched

Sean Michel ripping it up--Arkansas style

Sean Michel ripping it up–Arkansas style

from cannons in celebration of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. But it’s not real blood, which means Grave Robber is tamer than the freak show Moses and Aaron put on in Exodus 24. That was real blood.

AudioFeed is one of those places you’d never bring your grandma—though I saw quite a few grey-haired enthusiasts dancing around with ear plugs—but you’d do well to bring your non-churched, de-churched, or overly churched neighbor. Why? Because the music is simply outstanding. It’s fresh. It’s real. It’s unpredictable (blood from cannons, folks). And the musicians are real people who don’t think much of themselves. I don’t want to overly sanctify the musicians—they’re just as screwed up as you and I—but humility seemed to glow from these artists who don’t carry the stage with them when they finish playing. Casual conversations between rock stars and fans is a regular sight at AudioFeed. I met Peter Furler (former lead singer of the Newsboys) in passing, and when he saw me just seconds after his set, he remembered my name. Shane Claiborne, the keynote speaker, defies Christian fame by going out of his way to turn Christian celebriolatry on its head. He talks to people, looks them in the eye, remembers their name, and doesn’t ask to be put up in a hotel. He’d rather stay at the home of people in an effort to obey Jesus’s second greatest command. Shane is one of the most authentic, humble, passionate Christians I’ve ever met. What you read in his books is what you get in the flesh. And that’s pretty rare.

The thing that encouraged me the most was the intellect and passion among the participants. It’s a counter-cultural crowd, but you only become counter-cultural by thinking outside the box, asking hard questions, and not being satisfied by recycled answers. It’s not uncommon, as a speaker, to get questions about apocalyptic readings of Revelation, reader-response hermeneutics, or various theories of the atonement from a dude wearing black eye shadow and spikes. This is why I came back to AudioFeed this year. The festival reminds me that the kingdom of God is pushing forward through all types of people who live out their faith in nontraditional ways. And most of the people who attend this festival have a massive, cross-shaped heart for people. Yes, it’s true. Many of them have problems with patriotism, militarism, capitalism, suits and ties, combs, and the traditional evangelical church. But walk around and talk to them. Get to know their stories. Have a 5 minute conversation with a stranger and he’s likely to give you the shirt off his back. Even if you’re a suit-and-tie wearing CEO of a large company that served in Desert Storm. Disagreement doesn’t interrupt love.

Josh Stump, Shane Claiborne, myself, and Jay Newman. My kind of panel discussion!

Josh Stump, Shane Claiborne, myself, and Jay Newman. My kind of panel discussion!

At AudioFeed, everyone is accepted. Rainbow hair, painted faces, spiked Mohawks, and tattoo-less dorks from California (er, Idaho) wearing flip flops and a sun visor. If you want to wear a black trench coat on a hot July day. That’s cool. What matters is whether you love Jesus and people. You want to walk around hoisting a log on your shoulder, no one’s going to bat an eye as long as you don’t smack anyone with it. (These are all true scenes, by the way.) For one of my talks, I wore a black Harley Davidson shirt and I felt like people were thinking, “you don’t need to dress up here, bro. It’s AudioFeed.”

And this is why I love this festival. Jesus was all about the marginalized, and his followers would have raised a few eyebrows if they entered most of our churches today. Our New Testament was written by a terrorist named Saul, a slave named Luke, a treasonous extortionist named Matthew, and other marginalized ruffians with variegated shades of a shady past. But God loves people unloved by the

Josie and I with Sean Michel. He wouldn't give me the shirt off his back, but he gave me his face on my shirt.

Josie and I with Sean Michel. He wouldn’t give me the shirt off his back, but he gave me his face on my shirt.

religious elite. And God loves diversity. Middle class, white, suburban Christianity only reflects a small sliver of God’s image in the world. AudioFeed reminds us that we serve a beautifully complex and diverse God who loves all types of musical genres and doesn’t have a favorite hair-style. Suits and ties, khakis and blue blazers, boots and 10 gallon hats, black leather and trench coats—they’re all woven from a creation blessed and enjoyed by God.

AudioFeed: A festival that celebrates and magnifies our Triune God who defies singularity.

Fiction writers create characters. By putting words on a page, the fiction writer makes these characters come alive in the imagination of readers around the world. The fiction writer also creates plots, weaving these characters together into intricate storylines that reveal the unique personality of each character, revealing and growing each character in the minds of his or her readers.

Sculptors take a raw mass of material and shape it into something purposeful. The shape becomes the art, the form is the beauty. A sculpture speaks of intent, of realized potential. When we look at sculptures, even putting our hands on them or at times standing within them, we get a sense of spatial awareness, of carefully designed form, and of the features of the material itself.

A musician takes the physical stuff of this world, manipulates it into making the sounds which that particular matter is capable of projecting, and combines those sounds in ways that resonate with both body and soul. A musician carefully shapes sounds and lyrics, where every tone, every syllable, every phrase carries more meaning than we might think possible.

A painter takes colors in a variety of mediums and combines them in ways that are pleasing to the eye, provoking to the mind, even moving to the body. The painter spreads his or her colors across the canvas and creates a window to a world that is often simultaneously familiar and odd.

The poet uses sounds and syllables to wring every ounce of meaning, connotation, and suggestion out of the words we use every day. By juxtaposing phrases and drawing on rich imagery, the poet creates through language and draws us to contemplate, to enjoy, to rethink.

The dancer uses movement to communicate. In a language that no mouth speaks, the dancer moves his or her body in ways that call attention to our physicality even while pointing beyond it. Beauty in motion, beauty in using the most practical of instruments—a hand, a leg—for the most impractical and meaningful of displays.


All of these human artists are mirrors. In their artistry, they call attention to the ultimate Artist. Each art form in its unique way points us to the God who stands as the Master and Originator of that form, who has taken that form of art infinitely farther than is strictly possible.

The Artist in His Studio (Rembrandt)

God creates characters—not purely on pages and not merely in imaginations, but in reality. We bump into these characters daily. We are these characters. God makes use of plot, but his version of plot is far grander, encompassing all of human history as it does, and far more intricate, making brilliant use of each boring daily detail of each of the lives of each and every character—even those who seem the most incidental to what we would consider to be the main plotline.

God sculpts bodies out of dirt. He shapes trees and oceans and canyons. His sculptures come alive and swim, run, fly. He breathes life into his sculptures and they live and act, displaying the unique properties of the matter from which they are formed and pointing infinitely beyond.

God made the possibility of sound itself by ingraining musical qualities into the raw materials of this world. He gives each human a unique voice, ensuring that his creation will be filled with a diversity of musical tones and timbres.

God paints in colors every day, as the light he creates refracts through water in the sky, a brand new water-color masterpiece for literally every second of every sunrise and sunset. He adorns us with irises and skin tones and hair colors, paints in flowers and vegetables and fruits, splashes color across the skies and oceans and plains and valleys and canyons. His combinations and juxtapositions are endless, most of which will never be seen by human eyes.

His poetry creates worlds. He spoke and the then-nonexistent world obediently came into being. His words fill the Bible with more meaning than we can imagine, which every generation mines for meaning and comes to the end of their lives seeing the infinite depth of suggestion, connotation, and imagery still to be discovered.

He fills his world with meaningful motion, from the everyday dances we do with friends and families, embedded in hugs and acts of service, to the flight of the hawk and the rhythm of the ocean and the unexpected shift of the breeze. Each movement calling attention to the physicality of the world God made and pointing beyond.

God has filled his world with art. He has shown himself to be infinitely skilled in each art form. He constantly demonstrates his capacity to mix these forms, to transcend the boundaries that we place around specific disciplines. God is the ultimate Artist, and he has ingeniously created humanity with the ability to work within and continue his artistic endeavors. Each human artist is a mirror, each work of art a reminder that art is possible because God is the Artist, a fresh vision granted by the One who created sight, a testimony to the meaning injected in every corner of this world by the Creator.

Every day we encounter his artistry. Every day we are his artistry. We are his characters. We move within his plot, traversing his canvases, traveling as his sculptures, speaking according to his meter, moving as his dancers. We seldom notice the art we inhabit, the art we embody, but the art is there nonetheless, and it is magnificent.

Resonate Mark BeuvingI’ve already said plenty about Resonate (here, here, here, and here) but Zondervan has provided us with 5 copies to give away, so here we go! For a chance to win a free copy of the book, enter your email address at the bottom of the page. [Sorry folks, the contest is now over, but you can still find the book here.]

If you’re unfamiliar with the book, or if you just can’t get enough promotional material for it, I’ll just say a few things about why I wrote the book, and why I think it might be important for you to read.

Music is everywhere. Everyone experiences music often in a variety of capacities and settings. Since it’s such a familiar part of your everyday experience, it may seem like a waste of time to think about it more deeply. But that’s exactly why I wrote Resonate. Music is everywhere. We do interact with it every day in a variety of capacities and settings. And for that very reason, we ought to think more deeply about it.

First, there’s the dangerous side. Music is powerful stuff; it can affect us in ways we haven’t begun to understand. And much of the music our there can be harmful to your soul. So if you’re hearing this music—at work, in movies, on the radio, at the coffee shop, in the mall, in the car, in commercials—and you’re not thinking about what this music is saying, what it’s doing, and how it might be affecting you, then you’re crazy. Music is one of the most powerfully mysterious phenomena in this powerfully mysterious world. Passively listening to whatever sounds good or happens to be in the atmosphere is a dangerous game.

But then there’s the beautiful side. Music is powerful stuff; it can affect us in ways we haven’t begun to understand. We all know what it’s like to be deeply moved by a song in a way that goes beyond logic. We have all been moved to dance or tap our feet or sing aloud purely because the right song started playing. We have all (or is this just crybaby me?) cried as a song perfectly expressed some longing or fear or disappointment that we haven’t been able to express ourselves—whether the song expressed this lyrically or through a combination of sounds and silences.

HeadphonesMusic is God’s gift to us, and he intends for us to enjoy it to the fullest. For that reason, we would all do well to take some time to think more deeply about it. Where does music’s power come from? Why do we like it so much? The reality is, we know of no society that has ever gone without some form of music. Why is that? We know of societies without alphabets or currency—what makes music so universal?

I can’t promise that Resonate will satisfy all of your curiosity about music. But I wrote the book because I want to push people deeper into the mystery. I want people to acknowledge how miraculously beautiful music is, how amazing it is that God has given us instruments and ears and creative gifts and creative inclinations. I want people to look beyond lame distinctions like sacred/secular or pop/indie/classical and simply enjoy the gift of music with discernment, awe, and appetite.

So if you want to give it a shot, enter your email address below. If you’re one of the lucky winners, your life will be changed (because you will own a book you didn’t own before).

______________

If you’ve just stumbled across this page, you’re too late! Which means that five lucky people now have an additional book to read. But don’t worry, if you still want to read Resonate, you can find it here.

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