Archives For Art

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?

 

 

Strange TrailsI get excited about music, but I have waited for few albums with as much anticipation as I waited for Lord Huron’s second full-length release. When I wrote Resonate, I included a section on Lord Huron’s first album, Lonesome Dreams. At the time, I had listened to that album over 100 times (according to my iTunes play count), and I wrote about the depth and complexity of the album. The album flows gracefully from one song to the next, themes recur and develop, the last song even mirrors the first both lyrically and instrumentally. I included Lonesome Dreams in the book because I see it as a powerful example of music’s potential to draw us in, to make us think, to stir our imaginations, to make us wonder and think and feel—even if we are not receiving propositional statements that tell us what to think and feel. I have now listened to Lonesome Dreams over 200 times, and my thoughts are the same.

So when Lord Huron’s follow up album, Strange Trails, released, I was excited, though a bit apprehensive that Lord Huron wouldn’t be able to create another album at that caliber. Thankfully, they delivered. Strange Trails sounds like a cousin to Lonesome Dreams: some definite similarities in style and themes, but not simply more-of-the-same.

One of the most surprising features of Strange Trails is the process that Lord Huron’s Ben Schneider used in creating the album. Strange Trails has an underlying cast of characters. Essentially, Schneider envisioned a greaser gang, and each song comes from the perspective of one of the characters in Schneider’s fictitious world. The album doesn’t offer a strict plotline, as in an opera, but one does sense an underlying story and movement throughout the album. In an 8-minute radio interview with NPR, Schneider describes several of the characters—including their names, physical appearance, and some back story—and explains how these characters contribute to the album.

Lord Huron

This is similar to Schneider’s method in crafting his first album, for which he created a fictional fiction writer (sort that out), who fictitiously wrote the Lonesome Dreams series of adventure novels, each of which shares a title with a song on Lord Huron’s Lonesome Dreams album. (“Naturally,” Schneider, who is a talented graphic artist as well, created a website for his fictitious fiction writer, George Ranger Johnson, where each novel in his series is featured.) Schneider also created a series of “episodes” as music videos for the songs on Lonesome Dreams. (He is doing something similar for the Strange Trails album.)

Admittedly, this is a quirky approach to songwriting. The listener certainly doesn’t need to know about the characters and their back stories to enjoy the album, but I will say that his approach gives his albums a depth that is often missing in music. The lyrics aren’t bald statements or shallow rhymes, they are as complex and intriguing as the characters “speaking” them. Musically, the album is multi-layered and varied. The songs flow well together (intentionally so), yet there is a range of emotion that highlights the variety of perspectives through which the album “speaks.”

The combined effect is enjoyable and inspiring music with unusual depth. I haven’t figured the album out yet; it continues to draw me in. There are lines that immediately speak to me (“I had all and then most of you / some and now none of you…I don’t know what I’m supposed to do / haunted by the ghost of you”), but lines like these are more suggestive than clearly defined, and they set my imagination to work. In my opinion, this is how an artist taps into the power of music. So much of music’s power is its ability to suggest, to stir, to move. Music is deeply mysterious, so songs that leave no space for mystery or subtlety or reflection betray their art form; they are more sermons lying atop instrumentation than actual songs.

Lord Huron 2

So what can Christian artists learn from Lord Huron? I don’t mean to suggest that everyone should adopt Ben Schneider’s approach to creating art. But I do think every Christian artist, regardless of their particular medium, would do well to learn from the depth of Schneider’s work. Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins recently criticized Christian musicians for simply imitating U2 for the last few decades. Corgan is obviously exaggerating, and he seems to be unaware of some recent trends in “Christian music,” but he is surely right to call Christians to greater originality in their art.

Many Christian artists are extraordinarily creative, and the world has benefited from the creativity of Christians throughout history. But we need to continually be inspired by the beautiful, reflective, mysteriously complex art of people like Ben Schneider. Christians, after all, believe that ultimate reality is the Creator—infinitely complex, deeply mysterious, worthy of never ending reflection and contemplation. And we believe that this Creator formed a world that is itself complex, mysterious, and full of meaning, along with a mini-creator capable of exploring the mystery and meaning that resides in all things. So in my opinion, Christians would do well to listen to the music of Lord Huron and be edified and inspired—not to imitate Schneider’s style or approach, but to create with the same pursuit of depth and meaning.

 

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.

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).

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.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...