Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Merton on Suffering

Part of my commitment to this blog is to post regularly, even when I don't have complete thoughts or time to elaborate. So in the interest of doing that, here's what Thomas Merton has to say about suffering. From No Man Is An Island:

The only decent thing is silence- and the sacraments. The Church is very humble and very reserved in her treatment of suffering. She is never sanctimonious or patronizing. She is never sentimental. She knows what suffering is.

In order to face suffering in peace: Suffer without imposing on others a theory of suffering, without weaving a new philosophy of life from your own material pain, without proclaiming yourself a martyr, without counting out the price of your courage, without disdaining sympathy and without seeking too much of it.

Monday, March 19, 2007


Consider these words to be merely reflections, not a firmly planted and defended position on my part:

What artists, poets, and musicians can do for us who seek to know God more closely, is bring us into a perspective that we do not get from theology and scholarship. The artist, many times, is bringing us to an angle at which God's transcendence is...not known or understood, but perhaps whispered of. Theology points us to revelation, and the proper way to interpret and apply revelation. Art, for art's origins are mystical, shows us some fraction of the unrevealed, tempering theology by keeping its proclamations and proofs squarely rooted in the context of something bigger than what is knowable.

God Transcendent refuses to be contained or defined. Righteousness, or God-ness, all escape the grasp of the mind. "I Am what I Am" may be the closest we come to bringing it to our experience. God Transcendent will not be told what to do, how to behave, or what true righteousness is. He will show mercy where and when he will show mercy. He will not vote for our candidates, fuel our revolutions, write manifestos for our movements, pass our legislation, or sign our money. He will not be told who He is. Revelation, a descriptor of the vast ocean of God beside the drop of the human soul, is given to disarm the pretensions we have toward owning God.

What does it mean for the artist to be free indeed in her work? Can we put parameters on the content of a piece to insure our lives are not being secretly invaded by sin when we observe, or take part in a piece of music or art? The question is a recurring theme in the New Testament, though more broadly applied to the general practices of everyday life. What can I do?

I might critique art. I might critique a criticism of art. I could have a strongheaded opinion about an artist. I could find one composer to be aesthetically catatonic, or positively vibrant. I could take the inclusive, "there's no such thing as bad art" perspective, or I could say "good art is indicated by the technical mastery of the artist." Or anything in between these two statements. Whatever I'm saying about art, or God in art, or God in culture, I have to be able to admit that all our creations and icons come from somewhere, faithfully representing an inner reality. Whether it's the unpretentious simplicity of a 3-year-old, the peacefulness of a wizened saint, or the dark raving of a haunted personality on the edge of madness. All of these and more represent something common to humanity- they are where we are.

The question, then, do we judge(in the heaviest sense of that word) art by measuring it against some subjective code of righteousness(for there is no other kind, unless you are God), or do we allow the artist's work to reveal whatever it will reveal, committing to God in stark honesty whatever invisible structure is undeniably present and gave it birth?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Portrait of the Artist, and the Musician

So I think I will post something on this blog related to music fairly regularly. Perhaps what I'm listening to, or what my current approach to playing is.

The most recent CD purchase I've made was, unsurprisingly for someone whose blog photo is a mandolin, Chris Thile's How To Grow A Woman From The Ground. Quite a beautiful array of different flavors, all lending themselves to the "high and lonesome" sound of bluegrass and Appalachia, yet borderline rock 'n roll at times. Covers of songs by the Vines and the White Stripes firmly plant this group of musicians in the "postmodern children of rock" category, incidentally having some of the finest bluegrass chops in the world. The CD gets an "A" from me, but I'm not sure that's what I want to talk about.

I'm interested in the idea of playing music as an artist, a Christian, a performer, a professional. It would be too easy to make any of the following statements about someone that finds themself in these circles:

1. Christians should play music with explicitly Christian lyrics, or at least should not stray into lyrical content that might be considered unchristian.
2. Christians should not be performers. There is no place for performance in a life lived to God. It proves lack of humility to be concerned with performance.
3. Christian art should serve a specific, definable evangelical purpose. Namely, reaching out to the lost, or proclaiming the salvation of Christ.
4. Christian artists and musicians should not seek compensation for their art. Money is the root of all evil. Art belongs only to God.

Now to me, these all sound like facile statements caused by a limited vision of the kingdom of God. The reason I get this kind of vibe from the Christian music industry, worship musicians, and those part of what could generally be called Christian culture in America could be a lack of proper focus.

If the focus of the Christian/Church life is to win souls or proclaim the Word(which I have no doubt it is to some degree), of course anything not directly commited to that purpose is going to be looked at askance. Could this be the reason for the banal content of most Christian music? I digress...

But the Bible does not seem to indicate this typically evangelical position on "purpose." Every Christian is expected to know Jesus' final words on earth "go and make disciples...." But why is it held up as the all- important point of our lives? Rich Mullins once pointed out that in other cultures they highlight very different verses in their Bibles than we here in the West do. The Genesis account gives us a far different criteria for evaluating someone's work. God's creation was...good. Simply good, not "good for supporting the cause of a people," or "good for proclaiming a strictly defined message." God simply breathes, the cosmos springs into being and, as one, they visibly manifest the glory of the invisble Creator simply by being what it is.

An artist must ask himself questions when he is faced with the standard present to him by media and culture. If the evangelical mainstream has it right, it would seem that we are very limited in the possible scope of our work, the content that is permissible, the colors we can paint with. We then must turn to God's artwork and observe his "purpose." Philip Yancey poignantly asks:

Why is almost all religious art realistic, whereas much of God's creation - like the swallowtail butterfly - excels at abstract design?

In light of this, is God merely trying to save souls by his creation? Clearly that's a possible by-product. But would there have been no beauty to creation if there was no Fall? That's absurd.

Far from being a method of strongarming belief, God's art and music exist because they are, beautifully and carefully, tangible expressions of what is even more real, though invisible- the inner self of God. Carried over to the human realm, we see artists who, when at their best, are expressing the true inner self. For a Christian this means the redeemed self, which effortlessly gives authentic worship to God.
The unhindered voice of the redeemed in their work says not "I am a Christian," but more broadly "here I am," and believes that the beauty God has placed in them is enough to cause observers to give glory to God. The bully pulpit will not do. If it is not enough, the problem clearly doesn't lie with the artist.
I appreciate Chris Thile, and others, who are willing to be unashamedly Christian, and unashamedly artistic.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Happy Birthday Dr. Seuss (March 2nd)

Dr. Seuss was a smart man. I could give some long-winded explanation about how this whimsically illustrates what happens without the gospel, but it speaks for itself. From Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are:

Oh, the jobs people work at! Out west, near Hawtch-Hawtch,
there's a Hawtch-Hawtcher Bee-Watcher. His job is to watch...
is to keep both eyes on the lazy town bee.
A bee that is watched will work harder, you see.


He watched and he watched. But in spite of his watch,
that bee didn't work any harder. Not mawtch.
So then somebody said, "Our old bee-watching man
just isn't bee-watching as hard as he can.
He ought to be watched by another Hawtch-Hawtcher!
The thing that we need is a Bee-Watch-Watcher!"


The Bee-Watch-Watcher watched the Bee-Watcher.
He didn't watch well. So another Hawtch-Hawtcher
had to come in as a Watch-Watcher-Watcher!
And today all the Hawtchers who live in Hawtch-Hawtch
are watching on Watch-Watcher-Watchering-Watch,
Watch-Watching the Watcher who's watching that bee.
You're not a Hawtch-Watcher. You're lucky, you see!

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Fierce Mercy

Providence hurled a chance at me yesterday to hear Brennan Manning speak in person. I spent Sunday morning listening to him tell me that God's burning desire for me is so great that were I to know its depth, all self-hatred would "fade like last night's dream."

"92% of Americans believe in God. But if you have believed in God, and yet not trusted God, you do not actually believe in God."

"Are you haunted by a fear of the Father and a dislike of yourself?"

"Never has there been a mother who overlooked her child's faults the way Jesus does yours."

Though I am having to paraphrase, these three quotes are what I remember best from the talk. In this sequence, they pretty accurately give us the heart of Brennan's message. The third was written on a slip of paper given to him by his grandmother, who gave him the first experience of unconditional love that he ever had. In poor health and against her doctor's recommendation, she came to visit him in his adulthood. They reminisced and laughed for hours, and she died on the train ride home.

With a giant vocabulary and such unlikely word pairings as "fierce mercy," "furious love," and "ruthless trust," Brennan beats the drum for the unwavering love of God for people as they are, the abandoned love of a Father for his hurting children, for whom he will go any length to reach.

It is ironic that in middle of the Bible belt, and in the most Churched nation in the world, the gospel in its utter simplicity and freeness is so scarce that we must pay money and go to a special retreat center to hear it spoken. But to curse the problem is not to deal with it. We must hear, and sit, and hear, and internalize, and hear. And newly identify as the beloved of God.

Tens of thousands. That's the number that Brennan puts on the hours that he has spent sitting in silence and solitude, absorbing, listening, and receiving the Father's love. In caves, monasteries, and deserted places. Being alone has never looked so good.