Archives For The Arts & Culture

The Composer

Mark Beuving —  March 9, 2015 — Leave a comment

I have written a lot about music, both on this blog and in Resonate. And while I don’t want to always ride my own hobby horse, we can always stand to be re-awakened to amazing aspects of the world God made—like music. I recently came across this wonderful poem written by a friend of mine in my church, and I’m sharing it here.

Acoustic GuitarThe reason I want to share this poem is that it encapsulates in short, poetic thoughts so much of the wonder of music. In a short space, this poem explores many of music’s most powerful and enigmatic features: its physicality, its allure, its structure, its freedom and adaptability, its ability to suggest, its connection to the human experience and human emotions, its divine origin, etc. The poem does all of this while still preserving the inherent mystery of music.

So I’m posting the poem here (with the author’s permission) in hopes that you will reflect on the mysterious power of music and come to better appreciate the musical world you inhabit. We tend to take music for granted, in the sense that we fail to value it. But we should take music for granted, in the sense that we see it as a wonderful gift of God and make a continued effort to enjoy it for all it’s worth.

 

The Composer

© Jim O’Brien – January 2009

The overture lasted six days
After a measure of rest
He began to fill the staff
Of an unending composition
Infinite movements
Filled with keys and meters
Melodies and harmonies
Rhythms and timbres

A symphony of mystery
And anxious anticipation

A dissonant chord
Remains a constant reminder
And demands resolution

Modes change
Signatures modulate
As acts of engagement

There are no accidentals
Only “intentionals”

Grace notes

The music is miraculous
It transforms
It moves
It arouses

Overwhelming joy
Tears
Deepest despair
Tears
Amazement
Wonder
Freedom

Pondering…

How often does He sing the blues?
Does He cry when He hears Handel’s Messiah?
Do Gilbert and Sullivan make Him laugh?
What does He think of rap?

Finite styles from ethnic and regional identities
Different languages?
Who connects to all forms?
What is it that the Creator places in the heart
That makes the Russian and Italian
Express passion uniquely?

Why does a concerto enhance a sunset?
How is it that one style embellishes
And another distracts?

Who says that country or blue-grass
Only work when a mill and water-wheel are present?
A river absent a man’s intrusion
Wants a stringed quartet or piano and cello

Can a trombone paint a hummingbird?
Must the brush be a flute?

How is it possible that wind
Through branches and leaves
Can render an illusion of rain?

What comes to mind
With the sound of rolling timpani, crashing cymbals?
Is it the rhythm of the ocean?
Or a flash from a massive billowing anvil?

Man has been given a gift to create
Instruments that recreate
The sounds that He created
To what purpose?

We can guess
The composer knows
I think He wants us to know Him

I do have one question:
Why seven?
The frequency of eight is double that of one
Logical, simple, …divine?

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Nothing like this had ever happened before. In the beginning, there was God. And nothing else. Not an empty space and an endlessly ticking clock. Just nothing. No space. No time. Space and time are included under the heading of “the heavens and the earth.” In the beginning, God. And that’s it.

Let It BeAnd then the Maker began to make. One powerful word at a time. For six days, God continued to say this tiny word: “yehi,” “let there be.” The word is tiny, but powerful. This little word was not earth-shattering, it was earth-generating. Every single thing you’ve ever seen, or heard of, or even dreamt of was spoken into existence in those six days.[1]

This rhythm of verbal creation is punctuated by the repeated refrain, “It was good! It was good! It was very good!”

Creation is an act of the Creator. And it’s incredibly good. Thus far God has created through words: a poem written in stone and wood and soil and skies and living beings.

Orion Nebula

But in Genesis 2, God goes beyond speaking. Now he begins to “form” (v. 7). God is now digging his fingers into the dust that he spoke and forming it into a statue. This statue will become the inspiration for every statue of a human being every created, and it far exceeds them all—even Michelangelo’s David. But God is not done creating. After he “forms” he “breathes” (v. 7), and the breath that shaped the word-creation of all the stuff we’ve ever known now breathe-creates human life. God exhales into the nostrils of his statue and humanity takes its first breath.

God now takes one more creative step; this time he “plants” (v. 8). He plants a garden—not a raw wilderness or an unorganized jungle, but a specifically shaped garden. Speaking, forming, breathing, and planting God brings into existence the world we know. From absolutely nothing, the Creator creates his creation.

Given this creative context, we probably shouldn’t be surprised at the first job God gave to Adam. God created, then decided to make something like him, something “in his image and likeness” (1:26–27). So what did the Creator create this image-bearing creation to do?

Create!

“The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15)

Once he finished making the world, the Maker made a maker. Adam and Eve were specifically placed within the garden to “work it” (which means exactly what you’d think) and “keep it” (which means to preserve it and take care of it).

It wasn’t enough for God to make paradise, he wanted paradise to continue to be made. To be further developed. God’s creation wasn’t bad (“It was good!”), but it wasn’t finished. The Creator finished his creative activities in the beginning by creating a creator to act according to the example of the Creator.

So now, thousands of years and millions of creators later, we find ourselves standing here, on this same spoken earth, in this planted garden, as these formed and breathed human beings. And the job description remains. Created to create. Look at the world around you and see what the Creator’s creators have done. Some of it is magnificent. Some of it is horrifying. Some of it reflects the Creator. Some of it defies him. But we stand as creators, bearing the likeness of the Creator, creating in the not yet finished creation.

The Artist in His Studio (Rembrandt)

“The Artist in His Studio” by Rembrandt

 

So what will we make? Too many Christians—who bear the image of the Creator to an unimaginable extent—have hidden away from the task of creating. It’s too hard, too dangerous, too dark, too embarrassing, too defiling, too degrading, too physical, too artsy. Too many Christians have hidden in pews or buried themselves in doctrine, as if those things are somehow antithetical to creativity. Too few of the Creator’s Christian creators have created.

Christianity actually has a rich history in this area. We have created works of staggering beauty. We have shaped our world to a profound extent. Yet who would argue that the Creator’s creators are creating as they should, all they should, where they should?

In the beginning, the Maker made a maker, and he placed us here to make this world the kind of place he wants it to be. Wherever we stand on God’s good earth, may we dirty our hands in the stuff God made and make something good and true and beautiful.

 

 


 

[1] Of course, there are many things that human beings would make out of the original things that God made; I’ll make that point next.

Most parents are concerned about how much television their kids watch. Bad parents, we all know, simply set their kids in front of the TV all day, never considering what their kids are watching or what the incessantly shifting images are doing to their kids’ brains. But the rest of us fall into two groups: (1) those who strictly ration “screen time,” preferring their kids entertain themselves in the good old-fashioned ways, and (2) those who allow their kids to watch multiple hours of television or movies in a given day. Those in the second group often feel guilty about letting their kids watch TV. But I don’t think they should.

Now, I’m not saying that we should turn the television into a babysitter (or a parent!). Nor am I suggesting that we should let our kids watch whatever they want, or whatever comes on the screen (may it never be!). But here’s what I am saying:

My daughters (3 and 5 years old) have watched a lot of movies in their short lives. We definitely limit the amount of time they spend in front of a screen, and we are very careful about the content they’re exposed to at this age. However, I am very glad our girls are movie watchers.

How to Train Your Dragon 2I’ll start my explanation with an example. I recently watched How to Train Your Dragon 2 with my daughters. (Spoiler alert!) In the movie, Hiccup’s father dies by throwing himself in front of dragon fire to save his son. I paused the movie to ask my five-year-old if she noticed that Hiccup’s daddy died to save his son. I think the concept registered to some extent, but we kept watching the movie. Then I asked her, “Will Hiccup be able to see his daddy again?” She thought for a minute and said, “Yes.” When I asked her why she said, “Because of Jesus.” “Yes, sweetie!” I said. “If they know Jesus, Hiccup will see his daddy again. He will miss his daddy very much, but one day, they will see each other again and they’ll be so happy.”

Later in the movie, Toothless (Hiccup’s dragon) and Hiccup get literally entombed in ice by the evil dragon. Everyone gasps because they’re dead in the tomb. But then Toothless gains some new form of life that makes him glow, and he explodes the ice-tomb and defeats the evil dragon. So I asked my daughters, “Who else do we know that was dead and came back to life again?” Both girls knew the answer: “Jesus!” “That’s right!” I said. “Why did Jesus come back to life?” They’ve both known the answer to this one from our Easter conversations: “Because Jesus doesn’t stay dead!” And we continued watching the movie, sprinkling in a bit of theology here or there.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the filmmakers wanted us to have this conversation. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is not brought to you by the people who made God’s Not Dead or Fireproof. But those theological concepts are there, embedded in the movie. Actually, these theological concepts are the reason why this movie is so compelling. So I talked about them with my girls. And I believe that these concepts are that much more understandable to young kids (and to human beings in general) because they were embedded in a story. That’s how incarnation works. I do at times try to talk to my daughters about death or resurrection or the power of God, and I think these conversations are beneficial. But there is a special power of understanding available to us when we see these concepts played out in compelling stories.

One day my five-year-old told me, “Daddy, why are kings mean?” “Um, why do you think kings are mean?” I asked. As it turns out, she had been watching the “evil” king on Doc McStuffins. This turned into a great conversation about how many kings are mean because they want to use their power to get what they want. Then I asked her who the best king in the world is, helping her understand that Jesus is the best king. This theological softball was lobbed to us by Doc McStuffins, so my daughter and I took a swing.

I want my daughters to be able to play in the “real world.” I want them to run and sweat and learn to play well with others. So we are careful to do all of those things. But I also want their heads filled with stories. I want to them immersed in tales of bravery, in examples of fear and how it’s overcome, in explorations of good and evil, in stories of true friendship and sacrifice. Sure, Doc McStuffins is not Pilgrim’s Progress, but it orients them to many important concepts, and my wife and I simply do our best to help them process these concepts in biblical ways. There are many shows or movies we won’t let our daughters watch at this stage because we feel they promote disrespect or trivialize violence, but we’ve had great conversations about Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph, Tangled, you name it.

So by all means, follow your parenting instincts and don’t waste your kids’ childhood in front of a screen. But when you do turn on the TV for your kids, don’t let yourself feel like a failure as a parent. Just view it as an opportunity to teach them about God and the world and the people that he made. You may never get opportunities this good to talk with them about the things that really matter.

This entry is part 18 of 22 in the seriesBook of the Month

One year ago, internationally acclaimed artist Makoto Fujimura published a small booklet entitled On Becoming Generative: An Introduction to Culture Care. This booklet, and Fujimura’s concept of “Culture Care,” have resonated with many. This month Makoto Fujimura released the full length expansion of his Culture Care concept, Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life.

Culture Care Makoto FujimuraFujimura has written eloquently and inspiringly on faith and art before. With Culture Care, he gives us many important concepts to ponder and pursue. Fujimura talks about the culture wars that are all too familiar for most of us. Unlike those who would glamorize our modern culture, Fujimura acknowledges that there is much in culture today that should sadden us, much that is toxic, much that harms the soil in which we are trying to grow. But unlike those who want to throw up their hands in disgust and sit in condemnation of culture until Jesus returns, Fujimura insists that we have a responsibility to the culture all around us.

“Culture is not a territory to be won or lost but a resource we are called to steward with care. Culture is a garden to be cultivated.”

Culture Care means viewing all of life as a gift, viewing culture itself as a gift. Our own abilities, and the abilities and cultural goods of the people around us, whether Christian or not, are gifts from God. Rather than disdaining culture or the works of those outside the church, we need to be life-giving participants in culture. Fujimura explains:

“Artistic expressions are signposts declaring what it is to be fully human.”

When we free ourselves of our utilitarian mindset that insists on valuing only that which is useful, when we begin living “generatively,” creatively bringing something new and life-giving into existence, then we create new possibilities in the lives of the people around us.

For Fujimura, this is a matter of stewardship. If we all fall prey to the utilitarian mindset that fails to value beauty, creativity, and generativity, then the cultural soil will be further poisoned by the time our children inherit the cultural world we have failed to steward. But if we labor to tend the soil of culture, our children may live in a cultural world that is bursting with life, in which gospel seeds can grow, in which beauty takes root and shapes the imagination and daily life of society.

Too often, the cultural efforts of Christians are derivative (simply imitating the “secular” culture with a Jesus-twist) or speak almost exclusively to other Christians. But Fujimura’s concept of Culture Care calls us beyond this introspective existence.

“Western Christianity in the twentieth century fell into an ‘adjective’ existence with Christian music, Christian art, Christian plumbers. Even today, artists are often valued in the church only if they create art for the church, or at least, ‘Christian art.’ Culture Care will mean moving away from such labels…I am not a Christian artist. I am a Christian, yes, and an artist. I dare not treat the powerful presence of Christ in my life as an adjective. I want Christ to be my whole being.”

In this mentality, Fujimura sees artists functioning as “border-stalkers” (think of Strider/Aragorn in Lord of the Rings) who are able to cross boundaries with ease and mediate between diverse groups. Fujimura’s vision here of what an artist’s role might become in relation to the church and the surrounding culture is especially insightful, and he gives very practical and helpful advice for those seeking to fulfill that role.

Fujimura leaves us with a number of “what ifs” to spur or thinking about what might be possible if we took Culture Care seriously. Here are a few of my favorites.

What if each of us endeavored to bring beauty into someone’s life today in some small way?

What if artists became known for their generosity rather than only their self-expression?

What if we committed to speaking fresh creativity and vision into culture rather than denouncing and boycotting other cultural products?

What if we saw art as gift, not just as commodity?

What if we empower the “border stalkers” in our communities, support and send them out?

What if we created songs [and other forms of art] to draw people into movements for justice and flourishing?

All in all, I believe that Culture Care is an important book, one of the few that is taking the discussion of Christian involvement in the arts and culture to a new level. If you are an artist at any level, this is an important book to read. If you are convinced of the importance of art and culture in the life of the church and/or world, this is an important book to read. And if you’re just becoming interested in the concept of art and culture as it relates to your faith, this would be a great place to start.

As I write this, I am only aware of one place to purchase the Culture Care book, and that’s through the International Arts Movement’s website (click here).

One day, during my sophomore year in high school, a friend introduced me to MxPx. From that moment, I listened to virtually nothing but punk rock music for five years. I’m hardly exaggerating. Punk is not my favorite style of music anymore, but I keep coming back to it. And every time I listen to one of these albums from my teenage years, I remember the appeal. It goes beyond nostalgia—I truly enjoy listening to punk.

The draw of punk music is its simplicity. You typically have electric guitars, a bass, and drums. In most punk music, the guitars are distorted in every song, with the possible exception of a song intro here or there that begins with clean tones. You also have a lead singer who typically is not a “good” singer. They can get the job done, and often on key, but you’ll find few vocal flourishes.

That’s a very limited palette, but with that simple arrangement punk bands explore all of life.

MxPx

The whole approach is very raw. Most punk songs consist of only four chords (that’s true of most pop music, actually), and most punk bands use what are known as “power chords.” Instead of forming the full chord using five or six strings, the guitarist holds down the first three notes of the chord and mutes the rest. This is a very basic form of the chord. There’s no embellishment, nothing to make it sound more interesting or unique. Punk rock hits you with driving distorted guitars, steady bass lines, and aggressive drum beats.

You might be struck by the simplicity of punk music. Many think that every punk song sounds the same. This critique is raised against most genres, and it’s never as true as the casual listener assumes. Yet there is some truth to this critique of punk music. The genre functions within very narrow constraints. But that’s not necessary bad.

Jack White is an advocate for the beauty of constraints. If you give an artist all the options in the world and all the time in the world, he’s likely to be paralyzed. Jack White explains that in his band The White Stripes, he intentionally limited his options (only drums, guitars, and vocals; only red, white, and black; only rhythm, melody, and storytelling; and surprisingly, only two musicians). He’d intentionally give himself less time to record an album than he needed. He continued to play with old, worn out guitars that he had to fight to keep in tune. He made sure his organ and spare picks were a step further than he could reach in time in order to force himself to strain.

When most of us think of creativity, we think of doing something brand new, something far outside the box. For White, creativity comes when we restrict ourselves and then force ourselves to create something interesting within those constraints.

Consider punk music in this light. These musicians are very limited in “building materials.” They’ve got a few instruments, a few cords, a few variations in sound or tempo. That’s really it. And then they set out to create. And what they come up with when they work within these restrictions is often incredible.

You could argue that my teenage emotions were not well developed (and you’d be right). But I found a host of punk songs that spoke to my longings, my anger, my fears, my social insecurities, my feelings of love, even my relationship with God. Within the raw simplicity of unrefined vocals and unembellished power chords, these punk artists compellingly explored the human experience. I could relate to these simple songs. I still do.

In my opinion, punk is ideally suited to express or explore raw emotions: anger, love (whether reciprocated or not), excitement, etc. Most of the punk songs I love (typically from bands like MxPx, The Ataris, Slick Shoes, and New Found Glory) express a longing more than they provide an answer. And that’s what all great art does. It pushes us to wrestle with the human experience. Great art gives expression to our hopes and fears, it poses questions or presents us with a unique perspective on the familiar. That’s what punk did for me in my late teens, and that’s what it continues to do when I come back to these beloved albums from time to time.

Music is a gift from God, a means of enjoying him, his world, and the people he made. Music allows us to see more clearly, to grow more attuned to who we are, why we’re here, and what it means to be God’s image bearers. Though many dismiss punk rock as an impoverished form of music (or perhaps a perversion thereof), my generation found a lot of meaning in these simple songs. Perhaps you did, or do, or will (I’d start with those bands I listed above if you’re interested). And if you want to dive more into the power and importance of music, here’s a great place to begin.

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