Get Service

This video was shown at the Lutheran Church Canada convention. Recall that the purpose of every vocation is to love and serve not so much God in isolation but, as He commands, your neighbor. (Luther: “God doesn’t need your good works; but your neighbor does.”) The video thus fit in well with my topic:

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.

Professor Jones

My favorite scene in all of the Indiana Jones movies and the key to their true meaning, in my opinion, is in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The swashbuckling archaeologist is, remember, a college professor, and in that movie we see him in front of a classroom. He is droning on in his glasses and tweed suit, as the students in his class for the most part are dozing off or not paying attention. Then during his office hours he begins the process of saving the world.

This is academia, as I know from experience and vocation, a perfect encapsulation of us professors’ self-image. Yes, in our obsessive preoccupation with our fields we are boring and inconsequential. But when we do our RESEARCH we are exciting and world-changing!

I would love to see more of Indy’s day job in the movies. While he is flying on that DC-3 with the line on the map tracing his route to exotic climes, is he grading papers? Before taking off for the Temple of Doom, did he struggle to get his grades in? As he was trying to find the Holy Grail, did he have to interrupt his quest for committee meetings and to deal with student complaints? I know that he prevailed over Nazis, cultists, and Communists, but, given his retrograde attitudes and his politically-incorrect archaeological practice of plundering indigenous peoples of their culturally-significant artifacts, I’d like to see his battle with the college’s tenure committee.

All of his adventures would have had to take place, apart from a few sabbaticals, over summer vacation, that blissful time for academics that we are now entering.

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.

Abandoned church buildings

It always saddens me to see old church buildings that have been turned into restaurants, bars, concert halls, museums, or condos. See The Cultural Conversion Of Cast-Off Churches.

On “Kitchen Nightmares,” Gordon Ramsey, that chef I have been hyping who slaps failing restaurants and cooks into shape, took on an eatery that had once been a church. He, at least, for all his bleeped-out language, was strangely respectful of the once-sacred space. He used the confessionals to make the errant cooks confess their sins against their vocations (Q: “What was the worst thing you’ve ever done in the kitchen?” A: “I dropped a piece of meat on the floor and just put it back on the plate.”) After he forced the owner to clean the filthy kitchen and buy some decent equipment, he brought in local clergymen to pray and to bless the kitchen.

To be sure, new church buildings are often designed to look like shopping malls, corporate offices, or convention centers. I see no problem with using them for the purposes that their appearance suggests anyway. (But is there a problem even there?) The old buildings getting abandoned tend to have the sacred built into them: they typically follow a cruciform floor plan (expressing that worshippers gather in the Cross), are adorned with built-in Christian symbols that cannot be removed (shapes evoking the Trinity, Crosses everywhere, lines sweeping upward to evoke a sense of transcendence), the tripartite structure of the Hebrew Temple (a gathering place for all; a holy place for worship; the holy-of-holies area that is the altar). So turning all of that–or ignoring all of that–to turn the building into a night club just seems, literally, a profanation.

Wouldn’t it better to just tear these buildings down than to turn what was once “sacred space” towards “profane” uses? Or is this a wrong distinction? Do these new uses for a church building instead bring the sacred into the secular, turn everything sacred, and demonstrate God’s reign over all of life?

Dungeon children

The Austrian Josef Fritzl kept his daughter in the basement for 24 years and had seven children with her, who never saw the light of day. He had a “normal” family upstairs that supposedly never knew who lived in their basement. Here is evil on a scale that beggars the imagination.

How those children, the oldest of whom is 18, lived in total isolation and how they are reacting to experiencing for the first time the sight of the moon, the sun, and other human beings is heart-rending. From an article in the London Telegraph, Dungeon children speak their own animal language:

When he was rescued Felix pointed to the moon, which he was seeing for the first time, and said: “Is that God up there?”

He then made excited gurgling noises when he saw a cow.

Doctors said that since he emerged from his prison he is constantly excited and keeps trying to hit the air with his hand.

When he saw the sun for the first time he was even more excited than when he discovered the moon.

He made a squeaking noise and tried to look directly at the sun. When he realised he couldn’t he kept covering his face with his hand.

When police took him in a lift at the hospital he was petrified and clung on to his mother as the floor moved.

Police said he was stunned when one officers started talking into a mobile phone.

Felix was also excited about the police officer’s mobile phones. He was stunned by the ring tones and even more when one of the policemen used his mobile phone to talk.

The youngster also often hums an unknown tune to himself which police believe his mother used to get him to sleep.

More on the 18-year-old and the 5-year-old when they first saw the moon.