The poetics of Looney Tunes

Billy Collins, the former U. S. Poet Laureate, tells about how he was influenced as a poet by Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and other Warner Brothers cartoons. The piece will open your eyes to both the creative process and the genius of those cartoon classics. You should read the whole thing, but here is a sample from Inspired by a Bunny Wabbit:

I think what these animations offered me besides some very speedy, colorful entertainment was an alternative to the static reality around me that dutifully followed the laws of the physical world. The brothers Warner presented a flexible, malleable world that defied Newton, a world of such plasticity that anything imaginable was possible. Bugs Bunny could suddenly pull a lawn mower, or anything else that might come in handy, out of his pants pocket, and he wasn’t even wearing pants. Flattened by a 500-pound anvil, Wile E. Coyote could snap back into shape in a heartbeat. A box containing a pair of Acme rocket-powered roller skates would arrive in the desert with no sign of a delivery service (though you suspected it would be called Ace Delivery).

Plus, characters could jump dimensions, leaping around in time and space, their sudden exits marked by a rifle-shot sound effect. Anticipating the tricks of metafiction, these creatures could hop right out of the world of the cartoon and into our world, often Hollywood itself to consort with caricatures of Eddie Cantor and Marilyn Monroe. Or Bugs would do the impossible by jumping out of the frame and landing on the drawing board of the cartoonist who was at work creating him. This freedom to transcend the laws of basic physics, to hop around in time and space, and to skip from one dimension to another has long been a crucial aspect of imaginative poetry.

Baptism at the Capitol

At Jamestown, I bought a reproduction of John Gadsby Chapman’s “Baptism of Pocahontas.” Imagine my surprise when my family toured the Capitol building to see the original painting, all 12 feet by 18 feet of it, prominently featured in the Rotunda, right next to John Trumbull’s famous rendition of the signing of the Declaration of Independence!

Baptism of Pocahontas

America’s founding and the monuments to that event are NOT just matters of enlightenment neo-classicism or mere civil religion, despite my recent observation about our “shrines” and the graven images within them. In Washington, D.C., are many tributes that are explicitly Christian.

I hope it isn’t censored and put into storage once complaints materialize about the uniquely Christian and thus impermissibly sectarian nature of baptism or that the painting’s theme has to do with the imperialistic proseletyzing of native Americans.

So you think you can dance

Then don’t measure yourself against Cyd Charisse, who died this week. Notice how in “Singin’ in the Rain” with Gene Kelley, she projects two polar opposite feminine archtypes: the temptress (the dark lady) AND the romantic ideal (the fair maiden):

Even Canadians got da blues

I’m still here at the Lutheran Church Canada convention in Winnipeg. Their convention seems much less contentious than those I’m used to. Anyway, there’s a blues joint close to the hotel, so last night some like-minded pastors and I took our lives in our hands and went in. Here we found a hot band with a gravelly-voiced singer, name of Big Dave McClean, playing pure, traditional, 12-bar Delta blues.

Blues is a splendid art form. It has 12 measures, following a rigid chord progression, with lyrics in a strict poetic form. It is NOT pop culture, though pop culture as well as the high culture of jazz grew out of it, but is rather folk culture, highly traditional, conservative, and historically resonant and culturally rich. Blues is one of those highly-structured art forms–like the sonnet, the mystery novel, or (as one of the pastors pointed out) the liturgy–whose constants make possible infinite variety and total artistry.

Between sets we discussed theology, and the coolness factor was very high. I wish each and every one of you could have joined us.

John the Steadfast

The new organization supporting the new “Issues, Etc.” program is being named Brothers of John the Steadfast. I like naming things after people like that (he said from the Cranach blog). Here is a great account of who John the Steadfast was–the brother of and successor to Elector of Saxony Frederick the Wise, literally the first “protestant,” and the Prince who really protected and cultivated the Reformation–by Martin R. Noland. Picture by Cranach:

John the Steadfast

Erasmus, Tyndale, & Contemporary Christian artists

My student Nathan Martin, at Patrol Magazine, launches off after an account of hearing John Piper contrast Tyndale and Erasmus, relating it to contemporary Christian music and other expressions:

The incredibly truncated quote:

…”I linger over this difference between Erasmus and Tyndale because of how amazing it sounds to me like today. Tyndale wrote his books and translated the New Testament and there was a thundering effect, Erasmus wrote his and there was an entertaining effect a, high brow, elitist, layered, nuanceing of church tradition. They satirized the monasteries so they had a ring of radical nature about them, clerical abuses they criticized, but the gospel wasn’t at the center. I’m not going to name any names but there are elitist cool avant-garde, marginally evangelical writers and scholars today who…(feel) as if to be robust and strong and full about what Christ has achieved feels rather distasteful…it is ironic and sad that today supposedly avant-garde writers strike a cool, evasive, imprecise, artistic superficially reformist pose of Erasmus and call it post-modern when in fact it is totally pre-modern, because it is totally permanent.”

Whether it’s in Relevant, Blue like Jazz, or in the Black Cat, it’s hard to find Christians who will explicitly admit that they are Christians, or what exactly being a Christian means. Now, I know why many of these artists and writers have trouble identifying themselves with the particularities of doctrine and teaching; too many of them have been burned by the church in the past and too many of them are still trying to figure out what being a Christian truly means. What I’ve struggled with is when any type of doctrinal or philosophical certainty is greeted with skepticism and condescension, when the gospel is reduced to little more than well-meaning, philosophically vague platitudes that carry no true implications for belief or non-belief.

It’s a difficult thing to get labeled as a Christian in the mainstream or independent art world today, and inspires no end of questions and incessant, sniping prattle. Ask Sufjan Stevens what it’s like to never make it through an interview without his faith being mentioned, ask Dan Layus of Augustana what it’s like to make music with the weight of the faith of his family, church and college hanging over his head. I’ve talked to, and hung out with a number of other artists who face that problem on a day to day basis; what does it mean to be a Christian artist? Or perhaps more precisely, “How much of my faith can I admit to, without being completely labeled as a conservative fundamentalist freak-out?”

I have no great all-encompassing solution to this problem, but I think there are some things you can’t get away from. I’d argue, along with Piper, that Christianity is comprised in the gospel and the gospel is a message that necessarily excludes many other philosophical standpoints from legitimacy. I’m trying so delicately to not make this be a discussion about all these specific points of theology, but at some point and time, Christians have to be willing to be dogmatic about their “theology” because the implications of that theology provides the entire basis for their faith.

The implications of that faith should extend outside of doctrine and into vocation, as another speaker said, the purest theology should produce the most beautiful and excellent art.

Notice how Nathan gets the connection between the gospel and vocation.