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.

Christian art as the cutting edge

Jan Swafford in “Slate” has a fine discussion of Bach’s “Art of the Fugue,” a recording of which is topping the classical charts. The article shows just how wild, avant garde, and mind-blowing the piece is. But especially noteworthy is that the article shows what music criticism can do on the web: Swafford includes audio links of snippets of music to illustrate aurally what he is talking about. See The surprising popularity of Bach’s complex, esoteric The Art of Fugue.

We have seen something similar in our recent postings on the art of Lucas Cranach, as experts are realizing just how innovative he was.

Here is the point: these devoutly Christian, yea, Lutheran, artists were not stodgy. Their faith did not prevent them from being creative, original, and cutting-edged. Indeed, I would argue that their faith opened their imaginations up to complexity, depth, and aesthetics of the highest order.

I have noticed that in English literature, the most overtly pious authors are also the most innovative: George Herbert reinvented poetry by breaking it free from a dependence on set stanzaic forms, inventing a new form to reflect the meaning of each poem. Milton pursued things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme. Hopkins re-invented poetry again, on the level of the very line and metric foot. Eliot invented literary modernism, not just before his conversion but afterwards as well.

Christian artists today, in whatever genre, will have no cultural impact as long as they merely follow the culture and try to emulate non-Christian artists. The very culture is crying out for something different, a way out of the current aesthetic and philosophical dead-ends. Christians, who have a basis for art that secularists lack, can lead our civilization out of its wilderness. If, that is, Christian artists can get in touch with that basis in the creativity of God, if they can take their part in the Christian artistic tradition, and if they can recover art as a Christian vocation.