Implicit vs. Explicit Part II – A Response –

About a month ago, I published the first article from The Worship Collective, Implicit vs. Explicit. In which I put an outline on what it is that makes much of christian artwork bad art.

It has garnered quite a response. Much of it positive and in agreement. However, there has also been a backlash amongst some. Others just have questions about this line of thinking.

Here were the most common questions and responses. I will answer.

1. What about the Sistine Chapel, idiot?  – This was an actual response. I angered this person to no end, which is fine. I’m not interested in writing to make everyone feel good. Truth is more important. But this appeal calls to look at the beauty of something like the Sistine Chapel in which a masterful artist portrays explicit biblical images and themes. This seems to trump my argument quite clearly, no?

I don’t think so.

I would point back to what I said near the end of the article. It is when the explicit message comes before the form that makes the piece bad. And when I say “come before” I mean that it is clear that the primary reason, or primary concern, of the artist is to preach their agenda.  When I go to the Sistine Chapel, I want to go to see beautiful images. I want to see a master artist use the ceiling and walls as a canvas to display something beautiful. Is there a message behind his images? Yes. But that didn’t mean he slacked off on his depictions in order for him to get his message across.

2. What about Hymns and Worship Music? – Some hymns are like an amazing home-cooked meal. Others not so much. Again, yes, the message is clear. The purpose is quite explicit, but the words and melodies are beautiful. It’s great music. These hymn writers knew how to craft a good tune and they did it for their Lord. They were so motivated by the gospel that they wanted to create good art. This may be tough to understand. Allow me to demonstrate:

Let us use the hymn “It is Well.” Many adore this song including myself. How could we make this more explicit and metamorphose it to a bad piece of art? Try making the words less expressive and more clear of the message. How about:

“Even if I go through pain,
I’m okay because I love Jesus,
It may not feel good but It’s okay
because Jesus loves me.”

Now, this is in the same line as the message of the hymn, but far less poetic than

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
when sorrow like sea billows roll,
whatever my lot, thou hath taught me to say,
it is well, it is well with my soul.”

Which is better?

3. Is this mutually exclusive to art within a religious framework? Does this also work for secular art? – A very good question. No.  This line of thinking can also be attributed to the secular art world as well. Think of someone with a political agenda or a social agenda. Imagine it’s something you do not agree with, and they used a canvas to express their agenda. I would venture to say, not only would you disagree, but it would be distasteful. It doesn’t ask any questions or express any emotional truth. It’s simply trying to convince you of something rather than relate with you. Yes. This works for all art.

4. Does God care? This question got me to think long and hard. Does God care how good the art is? Does he care about the Implicit or Explicit notion? I think God care’s more about the state of one’s heart and what flows out of it. That is far more important than any artwork. But lets think of this in terms of “Does God care about how we work?” The answer is yes. He desires for us to work hard, work well, and with integrity. So what is art if not blood sweat and tears? Artists, make art. Make it well. Care about the form, care about the message, do it with a sense of wonder and awe. Be imaginative. But don’t feel as though you must be explicitly clear with your faith at the expense of your form. Tell a good story. Paint a pretty picture. Write an emotional piece of music.  Do it because God likes good art.

 

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Burning Words

Writing makes me queasy.

It isn’t always easy. It’s not even always fun.

Somehow, I feel like Moses would understand me.

“’The cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way Egypt is oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ And God said, ‘I will be with you.’” (Exodus 3:9-12a)

Growing up in the church, the story of Moses became a very familiar one. Proclaimed leader of the Israelites at birth, sent into the Nile river in a basket as a baby, raised by the Egyptians, murderer, outlaw, shepherd… his life is full of adventure, full of the Yes to God and the consequences of what a No to God looks like (see: the incident of the rock and water). There is so much adventure, so much intimacy with such a powerful and important God. The God. Who wouldn’t want that?!

Yet at this point in the story, in Exodus, something crucial happens. Moses has run from the Egyptian law and has been hiding in the desert. He has been tending sheep, has married, and is comfortable in his quiet life. Traveling on his daily route, he notices a shrubbery on fire. Upon closer examination of said shrubbery, he observes it’s not burning up. Out of this phenomenon, God speaks. And what does Moses respond with?gs5

Who am I, that I should… He is filled with doubt, worry, probably shame, and not just a touch of self-consciousness. This is the first time, but certainly not the last.

When I think about Moses, I think about how perfectly placed he was in the story of his people. How the actions of Pharaoh, his mother, the Egyptians, the Israelites, everything, was crafted together to be part of something that had room enough for his heart and room enough for the hearts of his people. His doubt only aided to that story, to the heaviness and the redemption and the humanity of it all.

Maybe the best Moses could do at a given moment was a wide-eyed, sweat-laced, knobby-kneed Why me?! Maybe the best he could do that day was take off his sandals and bow his head. God came near; he wanted to know Moses and be known by him. He wanted a relationship that would cover the entire nation of Israel in redemption and homecoming.

Yeah, I’d get a little shaken up, too.

The point is (at least, the point I’m seeing today) is that even doubt is a sacred movement into the heart of God. Moses didn’t let it cripple him, but laid it bare, spelled it out, reasoned with God, tried to get him to understand. Do you really want me for this? In his openness, his subjection to the possibility of being second guessed, Moses allowed for God to reach in and hold his deepest fears.

I’m not a leading a nation out of exile. I don’t see burning bushes. Well, not literally. But I think that when you’ve got a calling on your head, and God brings about the appointed time, it’s just as hard to ignore the itch to move forward as it would be to ignore a burning bush. I’m coming to terms with a lot of harsh, uncomfortable things. Over the last four years, I’ve doubted, yelled, cursed, beaten the ground, and agonized over the very existence of such a relational divinity in my life. I’ve dwelt in the dark place, in the desert, and I’ve seen miracles. Miracles for no one else’s benefit but mine.

And yet, and yet, and yet… I’ve gotten to the part of my faith where I’m settling down from all the wrestling and thrashing. It’s time to move on. I’ve gotten what I can from this fight, and God remains able and willing to handle whatever punches I throw. This is an immensely freeing thought, and encourages me to keep stepping forward, looking for the next path my feet are to fall on. Maybe it’ll be shepherding. Maybe it’ll be rebuilding a nation from the ground up. Maybe it’ll be baking cupcakes for someone who could use a pick-me-up. Nothing is too small, or too great, to be an opportunity of holy flow and a whispered Yes.

Choosing to write today is me taking off my sandals. I’m not going to hide from God, and I’m not going to let my doubt be so great that it swallows any chance I had to open my mouth and speak. Speaking is scary, but it’s becoming necessary.

The Israelites trusted a word. I’m trusting the same one. Regardless of how that manifests, in a pillar of fire or a pillar of smoke, I’m going to allow my feet to press in to the earth.

This is sacred ground, after all.

Some Spoilery Thoughts on Aronofsky’s “Noah”

I just watched Darren Aronofsky’s newest controversial flick, “Noah,” so you can see just how behind the times I am. For weeks pundits and bloggers have been back-and-forthing each other on the merits and demerits of the movie, with many in my ultra-conservative Bible-belt town imploring their friends and fellow churchgoers to spend their hard-earned dollars elsewhere—on movies like “God’s Not Dead.” After reading and listening to these folks for a bit, finally watching the darn thing myself, and then waiting a day to sort through my feelings, I’ve compiled some thoughts on whether or not the movie works.

THINGS I THINK MANY CHRISTIANS DISLIKED ABOUT THE FILM 

  • It’s not biblically accurate. Instead the movie’s a hodgepodge of biblical characters, Jewish folklore, controversial interpretations (I’m looking at you, “Nephilim”), and the director’s own morals and faith-struggles.
  • The director is openly an atheist. This is actually a fair criticism. I think that many evangelicals were afraid—given the liberties with which Aronofsky tells the story—that the director was secretly poking fun at Christians. I thought the rock-creature/Nephilim-angels were a pretty neat idea, but one can easily see how Christians would get upset that their faith was being caricature-ized, mythologized, etc. They worried about any ulterior motives Aronofsky might have had. I can understand that fear.
  • The Creator isn’t really a character in the film. Sure, the existence of God is not really debatable in the world of this movie, but Noah doesn’t actually talk to God at all. He gets a dream “from the Creator” about the coming flood, and he has to decide what to do with that information. So he builds an ark for the innocent animals and prepares for mankind to be wiped out. This absence of God in the Noah story is understandably jarring for many Christians.
  • The theology is off. This is related to the fact that the movie isn’t biblically accurate, but it goes a bit deeper. In the film, it is Noah himself who must decide whom to save and whom to damn. He decides that all of humanity is to be extinguished—including his own family. But the important thing here is that Noah decides this. The whole storyline with Shem’s unexpected offspring is the only thing that keeps Noah from going through with this judgment—and his mercy is (at least in Noah’s mind) painted as a failure to live up to the Creator’s will. The rainbow at the end could signify that the Creator wanted things this way, that He is delighted by Noah’s mercy, but once again we don’t explicitly hear from the Creator and so this is ambiguous.
  • Also, evolution. You know the part I’m talking about.

and…

THINGS I PERSONALLY DISLIKED ABOUT THE FILM

  • It’s not biblically accurate. At first I was uncomfortable with this, but I soon got over it and enjoyed the movie as a film about faith itself—a film that wasn’t trying to be accurate. A film that was trying to tell its own story. But for the first several minutes of the film I was uncomfortable.
  • Relatedly, some of the theological differences I had with the film made me uncomfortable—until I realized that this movie wasn’t about conveying a specific theology. When I began to see that the movie was telling an entertaining story about Aronofsky’s views on faith, I no longer cared at all about the theological differences he and I have. Because—as I’ll tell you later—much of his feelings on faith seem to be similar to my own. I connected with the story.
  • I’m sad to say it here, but Anthony Hopkins was too… I don’t know. Comedic? Joyful? Whatever the word is, his Methuselah didn’t fit the feel of the rest of the movie. And not in a way that seemed intentional. Sure, he’s like a beacon of mercy for Noah’s wife, but his acting still felt forced and not quite one with the film’s whole.

but…

THINGS I LIKED ABOUT THE FILM

  • You never see God. This, to me, is the entire point of the film. Noah operates on faith—utterly blind faith. It drives him crazy. He is going to kill his own grandchildren—and when he can’t do this task he immediately plants a vineyard and gets drunk. Not only does he refuse to save anyone from the flood, but the birth of his grandchildren makes that staggeringly sad decision utterly pointless: the sin of Adam will live on in his line, corrupting the world. Of course, in the end the rainbow and the coincidence of the twins’ birth can be interpreted as the expression of the Creator’s pleasure. But even this “happy” conclusion is not accompanied by an explicit word from the Creator—it must simply be believed that they are doing the right thing. God it not a present character. And this eats at Noah. This is a very scary, very human kind of feeling. I dug it. A lot.
  • Noah is not a hero. He’s kind of an ass. No. Not even kind of. The man is cruel to Ham, seems driven more by his own hatred of people than by the Creator’s law being broken, and is convinced that it’s a good thing to kill his own just-born grandbabies.  Why did I like this? Because it captures the feel of the Bible’s stories. The people are never the heroes in those stories, man. Don’t believe me? Read about how Abraham gave up his own wife to rulers (twice!) to save his own skin. Or about how David had sex with one of his soldiers’ wives and then put her husband on the front line when she became pregnant so his sin would be hidden. Samson sins. Moses doesn’t get to see the promised land. Adam fell. The titans of the Christian faith are all terrible human beings. The moral is that we need God to save us—and that is one bit of theology this atheist’s film got spot-on.
  • Russell Crowe. I thought he acted his guts out. His descent into madness was believable and frightening. His tortured, torn soul was on display. For me, his acting was a significant high point.
  • As usual, Aronofsky delighted me with the beauty of his shots. The evolution shot stands as my favorite sequence in the film just for its sheer inventiveness, but there are so many others. The river snaking through the world, the jump-cuts of the snake and forbidden fruit, the shot of the angel returning to heaven as he flies past an Earth covered in hurricanes. There were countless moments of simply beautiful cinematography. The man blows my mind in pretty much every film he makes, and he didn’t disappoint me in this one.
  • It was made by an atheist. Why is this a good thing? Because it means the old tradition of finding artistic merit and meaning in religious stories is still alive and well in the secular world. This film sparked a national conversation about faith and art and how the two meet. Hopefully this means that many Christians will start thinking seriously about how their own faith can be on display in the mainstream, where the people they’re trying to reach will actually see it. And more importantly, I think it sparked a conversation about whether or not a movie has to be biblically accurate to accurately handle biblical themes.

BUT DON’T TAKE MY WORD FOR IT

Let me know how you liked or disliked the film—and why—in the comments below. The discussion is what’s important.

Sacrament

Sometimes words are the only things that make sense. One after the other, in a semi-orderly fashion, are they thought of and placed just so on a page in order to convey meaning. Order. Sometimes, yes, words are the only things that are.

It’s a plot that is barren and lonely, to belong to the writing craft, though I’d go so far as to say perhaps every craft has its own particular brand of loneliness. There is a sacred hush to the way one buckles up their boots and gets out into the tough, unyielding ground thatflaxenprint journal pages 3 is a Calling, somehow trying to coax life and nourishment from prospects that have never seemed so slim. But a Calling it is nonetheless, and no amount of running away or skirting around or watering the dry parts or floundering in the mucky parts will change the fact that sometime, eventually, the work will have to be done. And if not by the one who is called to it, then by who?

To most, the word lonely may inspire a feeling of hopelessness, perhaps boredom, and a stifling kind of invisibility cast over them without their consent. Some days, yes, this can be so. But most often I find myself reminded of a particular little creature, a hobbit, resting among a place of specific invisibility, ready to give up his quest and his calling if someone would but ask. And yet, the only one there to ask refuses to take it. Instead, she gives him this token of advice: “This task was appointed to you. If you do not find a way, no one will.” Nestled in this confidence, the little hobbit opts to continue on. Maybe because he’s too small and naïve to understand what his task will cost just yet. Or maybe because he knows, and chooses to be brave. What is bravery, but the selection of terrified grace over safe refusal?

It is the grace that creates warmth within the loneliness. Anyone that has pressed on in the face of monsters, real or imagined, knows this. And it is this grace that leads me to believe the Calling of my particular craft is something to be worked out with fear and trembling. It is no small thing, though I be as insignificant as a hobbit or as invisible as a shielded city, to continually choose “Yes!” over “No.” Even if my yes is muddy, or covered in silt. Even if my yes is only a whisper. Someone wrote once that God speaks in whispers, and I find that comforting. The conviction of a Calling rarely comes in a loud clamoring with many bells and tambourines, though certainly the discovery of one may lead the finder to celebrate in such a manner. The Calling is softer, something unfolding from the soul, holding out a steady hand in an effort to help one’s trembling feet.

Grabbing that hand is my “yes…” today. Hanging on to that hand is my “Hallelujah!” and taking the first step forward is the sacrament of my worship. I keep writing because I have been given the words, however hard they are to find. I keep writing because it is the small whisper that confirms and refines my heart in the face of uncertainty. Believing that the voice sustaining me finds its origination in a Being far more understanding and at peace than I am, naming word after word onto a sheet of paper begins to look more like a hymn with each line. I could say they tumble across the pages like a fountain, but it’s not just about a fount of blessing anymore. It’s more a font of blessing.

What is Good Art?

I am a struggling writer with an English degree and philosophy minor from a run-of-the-mill university and, as of now, one self-published novel. I didn’t study art history. I didn’t go to a fancy art school. And I’m not some prodigy with a paintbrush or guitar. Everything you read from this point on is going to be colored by this perspective—the perspective of an average guy with a passion for writing who has crafted a theory on what (good) art is so that he can try to better his own craft. Prepare yourselves.

From what I understand about art history, there have been numerous movements among artistically minded people that dealt with how to define what the heck it is they were doing with their lives. And most of us—even as laypeople—have presuppositions about art. A friend of mine is of the persuasion that anything with a use outside of the context of the art itself loses its artistic quality—and so things like a finely crafted chair or table are not art. They have a non-artistic purpose. A function. And though they can be done very artfully, they are not actually examples of art. A painting or a piece of music has no real application outside of its own existence, and so therefore (to my friend) these retain their artistic validity. I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case, though. Just look at last week’s blog post and see the billboards. Then again, I guess those art billboards also don’t really have a use outside of their own context. So maybe this theory works.

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Marcel Duchamp “L.H.O.O.Q.”

There was a movement toward the start of the 20th century called Dadaism that kind of took my friend’s idea to its extreme. To the Dadaists, art could not have a ‘meaning.’ It couldn’t have a purpose or point. There was no message to be displayed, no idea to get across. Just art. This is vaguely reminiscent—especially to someone with an English degree—of the “morte d’author” notion of authorship which said that the meaning of a story was not the result of the author’s intent but rather the readers’ perceptions. When reading a story, you make your own meaning, find your own moral, etc. But, as with all extremist positions, the Dadaist movement’s downfall was its inherent contradiction. In order to get their ideas across, they made art with no “idea” behind it. Let me repeat that just to make sure you get the contradiction here. In order to show that art was meaningless, they made art in which the meaning of the artwork was that there was no meaning. We can argue about semantics all day, but basically what these folks did was say “art is not a form of communication, and so we’re going to use art to communicate that to you.” Absurd.

Now, that second-to-last sentence really hints at my answer to the “what is art” question—and you can tell it’s painted heavily by my experience with and passion for writing. Art, I would say, is primarily communication. The content of the communication doesn’t matter. That’s the prerogative of the artist in question. But think about it. Whether you read a moving poem, stare at a haunting painting, or listen to a composer’s best waltz, you’re receiving something from the artist. An idea, an emotion, a philosophy. Something is being communicated across the gulf. That is the purpose of art.

Good art, then, is effective communication. Let me go back to that “morte d’author” idea I discussed earlier. I don’t totally disagree with it—when I read a novel, I do the imagining in my head. I create at least part of the meaning myself. But I don’t think it’s that simple. An expert author guides the reader into imagining things the way the author wants. It’s why we can usually congregate around stories we’ve read—we’ve all been guided to imagine the world in similar ways, and so it feels like all of us readers are stuck in the same story together. We have a connection with the intent of the author. I have heard something similar about modern art. Someone once told me that the “point” of modern abstract art—you know, those paintings that are just blocks of seemingly random colors and lines that don’t coalesce into any recognizable picture—the “purpose” of those paintings is to guide your eyes from color to color in a set way. The artist tries to dictate the order of things that catch your eye and create movement in that sense. A good artist uses this ability to evoke emotions. They use their technique to communicate something to you that they want you to receive. It’s why we talk about “getting” art. We’re literally getting something from the artist—provided that the artist is of a high enough caliber.

This all sounds good, you might say, but what does it mean for me as a Christian artist? Quite a lot, in my opinion. To me, a Christian artist is simply an artist who happens to be a Christian. Recently, the lead singer for Switchfoot made the comment that Jesus died for him—not for his songs. His point? That he is a Christian, not his music. This is a profound thing that many people in evangelistic America don’t understand—“Christian music” or “Christian art” shouldn’t be a genre. There should just be people who are Christians making (good) art. And what does that mean? That means that we communicate things about ourselves to others in the medium in which we specialize. Can that be a literal, in-your-face depiction of the gospel? Sure. But see last week’s post on implicit art usually being better than explicit. It doesn’t have to be that. All it has to be, in my opinion, is the expression of some emotion/struggle/idea/etc. within the artist. For instance, my first novel is a science fiction story about the search for missing children and a young drug addict who gets caught in the chaos. It’s me dealing with the idea of a determined universe—of a sovereign deity. Are there messianic themes and gospel overtones to the story? Of course—because they’re part of who I am. And if Christianity is true, these themes connect all of us as humans because they’re part of who we all are. Or perhaps I could use another example. In college, I wrote a short story about a depraved sex addict who takes advantage of an underage girl and gets her pregnant. The story has no happy ending. It was in college, so I don’t know that I’d call it “good” art, but my intent was to show the emptiness inherent in sin. That’s all. So for artists, the message doesn’t always have to be a positive one—it can be a message about the negativity of looking at the world a certain way. Indeed, some artists use a sort of shock value to engage their audiences with tough questions or to make their audiences look at an issue differently.

So what’s all this about? I don’t know. I guess you could call it a manifesto or something. Is that what clever people call these types of short treatises? The main idea was for me to start some kind of discussion—maybe even one that occurs outside the confines of this blog collective—about what it means to make art, what it means to make it well, and what it means to do all of that within the context of being a Christian. I hope that, however small, this thing can be called at least decent art. I hope.

Implicit vs. Explicit

There exists a chasm between Christians and good art.

The most frustrating thing about being both a Christian and an artist is the fact that my fellow brothers and sisters consistently fail to understand what good art is (and why Christian art blows.) Thus making it difficult to communicate on matters of worship, beauty, truth and form. I’ve gone many years trying to explain why art is important, why art that is difficult to understand or uncomfortable to view can still be worth the struggle.  It creates a feeling of isolation. Does anyone understand me? A few do. And we’re spearheading this blog.

 

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Two weeks ago, The Huffington post turned out a fantastic profile on the artist, Lecrae. Many in christian circles love the guy and it is not hard to see why. His vulnerable and honest lyrics pair well with his progressive and infectious hip-hop beats and he challenges many on what they believe. He has consistently been in my playlists, if that says anything, and has been a part of my growing affection for hip-hop music. However the author of the article, Jon Ward, celebrated Lecrae’s departure from mainstream christian music and lauded the way the rapper mingles his faith with his art despite this fact. He explained the issues he has with Christian music and pointed out the frustrations Christians have over Lecrae’s recent changes.

This piece of writing was inspiring.

But I was particularly struck with a certain quote that Ward iterated. It comes from the brilliance of C.S. Lewis:

 

“What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects — with their Christianity latent,”

 

It captures the problem with christian art: Amongst evangelicals, the explicit trumps the implicit.

An example:

The film, “Fireproof” is an explicit (and christian) film.  The agenda presents itself clearly and very early. Kirk Cameron needs to fix his marriage and the only way for him to do that is to get right with God. The film wants to explicitly give their version of the gospel and show how it can better one’s life. It was praised by many in the evangelical community and was showcased at many churches.

This type of art is bad art.

The film, “The Tree of Life” is an implicit film.  In abstract ways, director Terrence Malick paints a picture of life by focusing in on a family’s evolution and their coping with the death of a son. Many characters pose questions, all of them directed toward God. Malick portrays heaven, he portrays the creation of the universe, he displays a verse from the book of Job that seems to be at the heart of the movie, “God is God. You are not.” Critics and filmmakers are still talking about this film and what it is in fact trying to say. It won the palm do’r at the Cannes film festival and was nominated for five Acadamy Awards.

This type of art is good art.

I will not argue the fact that everyone is entitled to their own opinions, especially in regards to taste.  Also, the mere fact that a film has won many awards does not make it good art either, though I do think it can be a sign of what many professionals believe is excellent crafstmanship. I am also not saying that if one likes the film “Fireproof,” that they are wrong. I am simply saying that they enjoy bad art. In the same way that one can enjoy greasy fast food and say it’s the model meal for everyone to eat. Wrong. Just… No.

 

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Billboards are explicit. They function as a way to display information for businesses and groups. Do they ever catch your eye? Sure! Can they be pretty and designed well? Absolutely. But those come second to the primary purpose: advertising.

And that’s what Christian art feels like: Advertising.

That’s why it is bad art.

The best art brings about its voice, its message, its ideas through the form, through the medium, through the design, through the beauty.

At the center of all art is truth and beauty. The implicit uses the beauty to portray the truth. The explicit uses truth at the behest of beauty.

So Mr. Lewis and I agree. I would, however, change one word of his quote in order to help my evangelical friends.

What we NEED is more little books by Christians about other things with their Christianity latent.

 

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Well… Maybe I was wrong about billboards.

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