Departing a Blank Canvas: Conflict

My wife and I went hiking over the weekend. It was the perfect autumn day for a hike. The temperature was cool enough to stop the sweat, but warm enough for short-sleeved tshirts. There was little or no wind at the top. The views were an amazing display of beauty. We felt so good that despite our tired limbs and despite the fact that we were barely going to make it back by dusk, we saw the next peak and decided to keep climbing. It would only put us about an hour and a half behind, so we decided to jump at the opportunity to cross another mountain off our list.

So we began to climb, which held significantly more challenge (and less touristy travelers than the other mountain). Nearing the top, we passed two experienced hikers that said we were a mere hundred or so yards from the top. They said the views were not amazing, but to feel good that we climbed it. With joy, we reached that point and began the exhausting decent from what we thought was the top. Upon heading back down the mountain, I felt Lot’s position as my wife looked back and came to a humbling realization: we did not quite make it to the top! Deflated, we knew we did not have the time to go back and conquer the peak, but we also knew that meant deep inside we knew we had not really made our quest. While we tried to make ourselves feel better, it really did hurt.

Upon our return to the previous rock summit, we noticed that the two hikers that gave us the erring advice were still there. We gently broke the news to them and were confronted with looks of reassurance. The more experienced said, “We made the same mistake, thinking that we were missing the peak, but being reassured by others that we had reached the summit.” We felt ecstatic!

Conflict, 2013How fickle and conflicting are our thoughts? I reflected on how important that hope of accomplishment was and how easy it was to sink when we realized everything we worked for did not reach true meaning. What an appropriate place to start a new painting. I considered the mountain and how different it was from the sky. The textures were different, but instead of being in contention, that made the memory. I think of our hike. While our thoughts went back and forth from overwhelming joy to deep sorrow, that made the memory.

Jürgen Moltmann possibly more than any other theologian of the twentieth century has taken a major analysis of the meaning of the cross and its influence on faith. Discussing the diametrical vision of the cross, he explains:

“Faith owes it’s liberty to the awareness of this crucified God. In the crucified Christ it recognizes the divine right of grace which justifies those who have no rights. In him it also becomes aware of the creative love of God which makes the ugly lovable. Hence, it recognizes in him also the beauty of God which gives joy to those who mourn.” (Moltmann, Theology and Joy, 1973)

A New Narrative Series

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Image: Eva Hesse originally intended for her Laocoon to suspend from the ceiling, but altered her plans due to structural problems. This set of altering plans is ironic considering her own path from escaping Nazi journey and dealing with other struggles when in America.

“My life and art have not been separated. They have been together.” –Eva Hesse (1936-1970)

I have taken a long break from blogging for a couple different reasons. The first reason is because of time. I admire the prolific writers who can type daily exhortations and still maintain full-time jobs. The truth is, I struggle to muscle out weekly meanderings. The second reason is content. From the beginning, I wanted to explore faith and art in my own expressive way. While on occasion this happened, I often found it difficult to express my voice through my own art. The blog instead turned into more of a social commentary of religious and artistic matters. While not a regretful direction, I relied too heavily on the blogs of other people and less on what I felt I could really contribute to other people searching for meaning in art and faith. For these reasons, I want to forge a new direction that will help me explore creative living, observational faith practicing, and compassionate learning. I hope you find the change encouraging, hopeful, and beneficial.

The Plan

Our lives are narratives. We thrive on the story of conflict and the resolution of that conflict. I have found I don’t really conclude what I begin. Instead, I simply move on because of new opportunities, a shift in focus, or just boredom. I sense I am not alone. Perhaps this is why journaling/diary-writing has been so popular in history. Many people appreciate some ability to contextualize their lives, whether it be for posterity sake or just wanting to look back over the events of life. For an artist, this is also an important task, but I am experimenting with a unique and social way for me to accomplish this enterprise.

I ordinarily approach creating art as multiple stages leading to a completion. Either a person commissioned a work from me with a finished concept in mind, or I made a work because I had a completed vision from the beginning; still, the final product is what really mattered. While I still work in this way, for this series, I will try to separate that method from the final work. I still aim to have a complete series, but the everyday process will matter much more.

Starting with a blank canvas, I will make additions with no future concept about how those marks will shape the finished concept. I am drawing upon the spontaneity of Jackson Pollock and Franz Klein, but without the dismissal of context (along with critiques within many post-minimalist communities of the later 20th century). Sometimes, like in life, our daily tasks aid in who we will become, but sometimes they prolong the process. Either way, they represent a piece of a greater scheme. I will not know when a stage is done until it feels done. Instead, each day I will reflect if I find it complete or needing more reworking. Believe me, this might be the hardest part of the process! Some works might take weeks, other might take a couple days. Each post, I will show a picture of the progress (hopefully progress) and write a little bit about the inspiration for that stage in the work.

I am not sure what might evolve from this series, but at least for now, it sounds like fun.

The Day After the 2012 Election: My Brief Take-Away As a Twenty-Something Church Leader

Many of you are over the election, and really I am too. Soon Christmas ads will eclipse political ads and people may even turn into humans again instead of gnarling beasts of the democratic apocalypse. I will continue a series I have begun based on James Hunter’s book about changing the world, power, and influence. Even though the election is over, I think the issues he raises are important for Christians living in twenty-first century America. Until that time, I do feel compelled to offer one (only one!) take-away for churches from last night.

I am a data junkie. Unlike most non-geek Americans, I love to sit and analyze individual counties in an election and the regional influences of the country. Yesterday I sat down and mapped out what I thought the electoral vote would look like based on polling, momentum, previous election cycles, and regional demographics. Everyone does this, right? Right? I will spare you all that I learned from this exercise, but I did observe that the polls were right. Leading up to the election, many Republicans felt like the polling did not take in consideration the momentum and energy that Romney had at the end. I thought this might be the case. Going in I gave Romney both Florida and Virginia thinking that energy and history would slightly win over the polls; it did not. If anything, the polls slightly underestimated Obama’s turnout. Romney’s enthusiasm among whites was simply not enough to overcome the vote of the minorities.

I think the changing demographics of the country are also important for Christian leaders to understand. This election made it clear that there is a sharp demographic divide between ages, regions, geography, and educational background. The same is true in churches. In his book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith (Baker, 2011), David Kinnaman writes how a the younger generation (18-29) is very different than previous generations. He tells the story of Bob Buford, a cable TV entrepreneur. Bob, another data junkie, highlighted research that showed word ‘self-identifiers’ to describe their generation. Here are the results (Kinnaman, 37-38):

  • “WWII/Depression Era” – ‘smarter,’ ‘honest,’‘work ethics,’ ‘values and morals’
  • “Boomers” – ‘work ethic,’ ‘respectful,’ ‘values and morals,’ and ‘smarter’
  • “Busters” – ‘technology use,’ ‘work ethic,’ ‘conservative/traditional,’ ‘smarter,’ and ‘respectful’
  • “Millennials” – ‘technology use,’ ‘music and pop culture,’ ‘liberal/tolerant,’ ‘smarter,’ and ‘clothes’ (no ‘respectful’ or ‘work ethic’)

Interestingly, each self-categorization included ‘smarter.’ As far as 2012 is concerned, religion really did not play a major role in either the public debate or in the exit poll results. But, the election in many ways is intricately connected to changing demographics in churches. As I have worked with teens and young adults, I have noticed what others have said for years: methodologies for outreach must become more creative, relatable, and passionate if Christians ever want to reach the “next generation.” How that is done can fill a whole book (Kinnaman goes on to offer his take on the situation). As the Republican party will certainly go through the self-reflective process, I also hope that Christian leaders use the election as a reflection on the changing demographics of our culture and seek to at least understand those directions.

Christianity & the Role in Society, pt. 4

In the next section of To Change the World, Hunter describes how culture functions and changes throughout history. According to Hunter, culture generally reshapes from the elites down and often through a long process. He notes that even though the spark for change is often seen in civil unrest, uprisings, etc., new acculturation takes place only when the core elites (not necessarily the central elites) articulate an organized message to the dissent.

An important study is the first few centuries after Christ were the new religion went from relative obscurity to empire-wide practice. Hunter traces the foundations of Roman philosophy and how socio-economic practices allowed for Christianity’s growth centuries later. I encourage you to pick up the book and look at his description about how this plays out throughout history leading to modern America.

In essence, Christianity gained reputability through dialogue with the major cultural systems in its time. Socially, patronage kept the Roman way of living extremely stratified. Social groups knew their place, which left the ruling elites with considerable control. Social cohesion and education (paideia) reinforced this authority. Christianity in large part rejected that system and acknowledged the value of all members despite their social status and role through the unity of Christ.

Christianity, however, also had direct conversation with leading philosophical schools at the time. Justin Martyr, Ambrose, Augustine, Origen, etc. were highly educated and regularly countered Celsus, Porphyry and other pagan philosophers on their terms. As a result over time, the surrounding cultural tide turned from paganism to Christianity.

Hunter is an intellectual historian (concentrating on the influence of elites to change the dynamics of a given community); however, he also acknowledges the power of grassroots pressure that furthers the goals of the elites:

Often enough, alongside these elites are artists, poets, musicians, and the like who symbolize, narrate, and popularize this vision. New institutions are created to give form to that culture, enact it, and in so doing, give tangible expression to it. Together, these overlapping networks of leaders and resources form a vibrant cultural economy that gives articulation, in multiple forms, and critical mass to the ideals and practices and goods of the alternative culture in ways that both defy yet still resonate with the existing social environment. (78)

Perhaps one reason for the decline in Christianity’s influence in the modern era is its neglect, criticism, and denial of both artistic and erudite principles. It sounds easy to jump back into these arenas, but secularists are now quite suspicious of Christianity’s attempt for a voice. Depending on the motivation, this is for good reason. There also remains an internal concern that Christians should abstain from dialogue with these communities because of the inherent questioning of faith. These external and internal struggles force Christians to investigate alternative means for gaining a place at the table.

Christianity & Role in Society, pt. 3

We do not get to choose the year we come into and go out of the world. History is filled with all-but-forgotten people who could have changed the world under different circumstances, geographies, and influences. This date, October 31, reminds me that we never know how history will look upon the date we live now. Every day that we live might be one that people look back centuries later as a turning point in civilization. This post focuses on two days, five years apart, that changed the world.

  • Case Study 1: Reformation Day (October 31, 1517) – Although in October 1517 Luther had no intention of revolution, history remembers him most significantly for his actions on this day. Struggling with his anger over the selling of indulgences to support a financially crippled Catholicism, Luther composed ninety-five theses and posted them on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. In response, Pope Leo X issued Exsurge Domine, a rebuttal of Luther’s critiques. Both the Church’s harsh response and the proliferation of Luther’s ideas from Latin to German made the Reformation a turning point in religious history.
  • Case Study 2: Evening Vespers (October 31, 1512) – After four arduous years of complaints, skill, and artistic genius, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni completed arguably the most powerful piece of religious art in history. On October 31, Pope Julius II held the inaugural evening vespers in the chapel. Not only was the ceiling a hallmark of the town, it also became a fixture in the artistic explosion of the Italian Renaissance.

Just a couple decades before these events, a new world came onto the map for Europe. Certainly this was a changing time for western civilization. The next post in our series will focus on how people in history have changed the world. James Hunter suggests that:

To live in culture is, in most times and places, to experience the world as stable and enduring. This is true even in times of great social change and cultural upheaval. We tend not to experience the change as change but only recognize it for what it is in retrospect. (78)

It is probably true that Michelangelo and Martin Luther did not seek to change the world. In fact, many people who try to change the world fail in doing so. It is like the cliche of a baseball player “swinging for the fences.” People, especially millennials, want to change the world. Maybe instead of trying to change the world, we should focus on standing for our convictions. Find out what drives your life, where injustice exists, and how you can put your values into practice. In this light, every day is not seen as an opportunity to change the world; rather, the world changes just from our desire to passionately live each day.

 

Christianity & the Role in Society, pt. 2

In the opening part, I introduced an overview of this blog set inspired from James Davidson Hunter’s book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (2010). This section will focus on how Christians generally seek to transform culture. Hunter relies heavily upon the work of Charles Colson as representative of what he refers to as “the common view of culture” among Christians. Namely, this involves working with culture from the inside out, changing hearts and minds, and ultimately changing society through civic pressure on a macro level. Forms that use this understanding of cultural transformation include para church organizations such as Focus on the Family, Dobson’s “The Truth Project,” and even avenues such as homeschool literature and Christian camps. It has been seen in every branch of Christendom from Protestant to Catholic, liberal and conservative. It echos from Billy Graham to Jim Wallis and beyond.

Even though most of Christianity attempts to make a stand in this way, Hunter provocatively rejects its effectiveness. He spends some time analyzing the reality that while America’s “values” (in terms of cognitive beliefs) certainly are not secular, the actual practices of life, business, media, etc. are secular. As Christians continue to lose ground within the culture war, the common methods of transformation are simply not working.

This common view analysis dovetails the purpose of this blog especially within Hunter’s observation that:

It is true that Evangelicals have not been active in high art or in film, but these facts alone do not account for their dramatic marginalization in American society, not least since other much smaller minorities have had a much greater influence. (29)

It is partly because of this marginalization within the arts that Christianity fails to connect with larger cultural “ideals” and “artifacts,” as the author defines. Think of a great artist within the late modern era that is recognized for open Christian activism that is also considered “fine art” (be it music, dance, visual, etc.). You may have to think for a long while.

Concerning politics, Hunter’s assessment of the common view of culture may explain why neither candidate this political season has really focused on their religious beliefs. Both candidates rarely reference God, not because they do not have a practicing faith, but because their own beliefs do not have resonance in a secular post-Christian culture. Yet, there is still considerable societal pressure to conform to some form of mainstream Christian belief. Mitt Romney’s Mormonism tested this boundary, but surprisingly has not been not a major factor in the race.

Hunter’s analysis is important to keep in mind as we understand what drives Christians to change the world. The next section focuses on an alternative to this view. Here is a followup question to this section:

–> I mainly focused on Hunter’s inclusion of the arts and then its extension into politics. Does this help explain the lack of real cultural change that Christians seek to promote? What other factors are at work?

Christianity & the Role in Society, pt. 1

Perhaps one of the greatest controversies among people of faith is how to understand their relationship with culture. Proponents of an isolationist point-of-view fail to recognize the connection we have with our context; however, proponents of an incorporative point-of-view often invite too much culture as a means to remain relevant in a constantly changing world. As we come very close to a major political election, it is important to have discussions about the role of Christianity should have in the public sphere especially as it pertains to living in a post-Christian world. Over the next few days, I will set forth a small portion of the ideas presented in James Davidson Hunter’s book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (2010).

His analysis is important because the conversation between American politics and faith is often turned into conflicting visions of a common desire: to give healing to the world. In the book, Hunter seeks to transcend Charles Colson’s analysis of “worldview” and “values” toward a more informed approach. My main purpose in writing the following days are:

  • To better sense the misunderstandings Christians have regarding our place, our calling, and our methods in “world-changing” ventures.
  • To better understand culture and how Christians generally have interpreted our interaction with culture in the late modern era.
  • To determine if there is, as Hunter contends, a “possibility” for Christianity to affect culture in a positive manner.

As you see in this post, I hope for the articles to be short and simply introduce ideas that Hunter raises as we come close to the climax of an election cycle. For many, like myself, this issue of how we respond to culture is not only timely, but one that is also timeless.