Nothing to say about the Oscars

Contrary to my usual custom, I really don’t have anything to say about the Academy Awards. I tried to watch some of the show, but I found it insufferable and had to turn away. Which raised another question in my mind: Is it really true lately that movies influence the culture? I think we are seeing the dysfunction evident in the rest of the arts, in which the “high culture” of the artsy elite has become culturally irrelevant, while the “pop culture” of the money-makers simply conforms to whatever trends are out there.

Cranach painting updates

Paul McCain has put up some more material on his blog devoted to that Lucas Cranach altarpiece.  He includes some exposition of the figures in the painting and what they mean.  Note the self-portrait of Cranach, who shows the blood of Christ shooting out from His wounds upon himself.  That’s a powerful confession of faith from the great artist.  Go to A Painting That Preaches Christ.

A Cranach painting gets its own blog

A thousand thanks to Paul McCain, who has started a whole blog in honor of Lucas Cranach’s Weimar altarpiece!  It is called A Painting That Preaches Christ.The first post is an enormously enlightening summary, filled with priceless quotations, about Luther’s defense of using art in church.  The site promises more and more resources exploring this masterpiece of the Reformation. Cranach's Weimar Altarpiece

Another dream fulfilled

My wife’s school held its annual chili cook-off and talent show last Friday.  One of the judges got stuck in traffic, so I was enlisted to be one of the judges for the chili contest.  I had always wanted to do that!  There were nine different chilis.  There was general consensus about the top three (showing the principle of classical aesthetics that beauty is objective), though the various judges differed somewhat in their rankings (showing the principle of classical aesthetics that there are legitimate variations in taste–for example, one of the contenders was a Cincinnatti-style chili, which is sweet and flavored with cinnamon.  It was well-done and good in its way, but I prefer Western-style, with lots of cumin).  Points were rewarded and tabulated, and winners were declared.  (My top choice did come in second–the Cincinnatti-style prevailed–but my choice also won the People’s Choice Award, so I felt vindicated.)  The talent show was quite charming, showcasing some very talented grade-school kids, with vocal performances ranging from “A Mighty Fortress” to Hannah Montana, instrumental numbers to comedy skits.  It was a good night of fellowship and classical education. I have been a movie critic, but the really good gig is to be a food critic.  What I’d like to do, now that I’ve helped judge a chili contest, is to judge a BBQ competition! 

Tastelessness in the Church

Jason Braaten, at Concordia TheoBLOGical Seminary, links to a good Touchstone essay by Anthony Esolen, then draws some incisive conclusions of his own:

Talking about taste is not bad with regard to the arts in the church, unless you have none. And it is this that we as the church have been reticent to discuss-mainly due to the fact that we ourselves don’t actually have taste. We have knowledge of what we want people to think is good taste, but don’t actually have it. It isn’t a part of the fiber of our being. We are fakes. We are phonies. We have no taste-some to a lesser degree than others.

What strikes chords that resonate within me with this essay is Esolen’s ability to say just that. To evaluate tastes, you must have some taste. And what the church hasn’t done, nor is it quite prepared to do because we are in a very real sense victims and perpetrators of the enemy issues, is come out to say some tastes are better than others. We have not inculcated and nurtured people to identify with those tastes that are higher and better. And this is not just the case in church, but probably more so in the home. There is objectivity to beauty and taste, even though we have learned otherwise. And the saddest and most shameful thing about this is that we have chosen simply to maintain status quo and hand it on to subsequent generations.

To remind those of us who say we believe in “absolutes” against the postmodernists who deny there is any such thing, the three absolutes were and are Truth, Goodness, and BEAUTY. Christians are against relativism when it comes to truth and goodness but they tend to agree with the postmodernists that beauty is relative. This must be challenged. Once beauty goes, the other absolutes quickly become unravelled. (This is not, by the way, just the problem of churches; rather, it reflects the even bigger tastelessness of the culture as a whole, which Christians, while criticizing the culture on many points, emulate it on this one.)

Yes, beauty involves a subjective response and that “tastes” differ, but taste, like other human faculties, must be cultivated, educated, and disciplined. We need to learn how to take subjective pleasure in what is objectively GOOD.

Defacing Beauty with a Message?

Samuel Smith’s thoughts on our recent post about study of the arts being good in itself, from his comment and his maplemountain blog site:

Art does not have to have any “practical” utility to be of value. If it is good, it has value that need not be “useful.” And I mean useful in a practical way. To a large degree Christian artists have become utilitarians, seeing art as merely a vehicle for transmitting a message. And that is not the sole purpose of art. I won’t say that art cannot be a medium for a message, but I believe this very often serves to cheapen the art and the message it is presenting, usually in an ungainly way.

But aren’t we to live and breath for the glory of God?

When explaining my view on this, I often resort to “The Tree Illustration.” I am fond of trees, even with an amazing deficiency of botanical understanding (there’s something in that, I suppose). Imagine the most beautiful tree you have ever seen. What beauty, what serenity, what transcendence it conveys. It speaks plainly of the glory of the Creator. Now imagine that same tree, but with “John 3:16″ crudely spray-painted on the trunk. Now this tree, already displaying its God-given purpose, becomes polluted by being transformed into a mere medium for a message.

Now, hold on. I hear you. I know that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. That’s a fact. I am one who does not buy into the idea (attributed, I believe erroneously, to St. Francis of Assisi) that we ought to “Preach the Gospel, and if possible use words.” The Gospel is conveyed by words. God loves Words so much that he has chosen to communicate to man primarily through words, his Word, and most profoundly through his Son, referred to in Scripture as “the Word.” So words matter, the Gospel matters, and it must be preached using words. But that does not require that we put Bible verses on the Mona Lisa. That doesn’t help either the message of the cross, or the art done to the glory of God (or art that necessarily glorifies God by it’s sub-creative worth).

I believe that engaging in art, be it writing a novel, painting a canvas, composing music, sketching a tree, writing poetry, etc., has value. It has value even without a “conversion scene”, or an “allegory of Christ”, or “Bible verses above the lyrics”, or a “quota of Jesus references in a song.” It has value because it is part of the order of God to convey the beauty of the common, and the thrill of the transcendent in his world through every noble facet of our imaginations. Imagination is crucial to the Christian, it is where the Lordship of Christ is established and his reign issues in our lives. If he is not Lord there, then where? And I do not mean, by imagination, the unreal. But the most real. The place of the soul…our very selves. As C.S. Lewis said: “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”

. . . I think we ought to engage in art to the Glory of God, and that leads us necessarily to art that expresses Beauty and Goodness. Here’s my semi-concise pseudo-summary: We are either engaging in art for goodness’ sake, or we are forsaking good art.