Thursday, June 24, 2010

When Wrong Art is Right

One bite into
a ripe fig
is worth worlds
and worlds and worlds
beyond the green
of Eden.

                    - from “Figs”, Erica Jong, from Love Comes First, 2009

What is it about art which supersedes theology? This is the coda of Erica Jong’s poem, which postulates that it was indeed a fig which was offered by Lucifer and taken by Adam and Eve. The last line bugged me, but I understood it. The entire poem is a thing of beauty, rolling into the consciousness with the persistent velvet rhythm of a heartbeat. I can taste the flesh of the fruit in the cool of the day. But here, the last line. I disagree. Wholeheartedly do I disagree, and I can hear a hundred preachers duly shaking their heads and restating that No, it is not worth it. I hear Satan offering Jesus “all of this… for I can give it to whomever I choose,” and Jesus’ reverberating dismissal of the devil.

Somehow, though, the line itself, and many lines of many poems and songs besides, ring true. I can say that it is merely touting the virtues of the taste of a ripe fig and therefore is true though its hyperbolic language, but dissecting a poem feels coldly logical. Also, it discounts the poem as a whole. So what is it that allows me to nod knowingly to this work as it is read in verse while at the same time fervently refuting if it descends from the pulpit? I believe the answer to be Honesty.

The reason that art resonates with us, that theatre beguiles us and paintings make us cry and music soothes savage beasts, is that it is honest. First and foremost among artists of all media is the knowledge that if your work does not speak of that which wells up within you, then it will be of little value to those who hear or see it. A photographer takes photos to show people beauty or horror where she sees them so that others may see also. A songwriter pens lyrics that reveal his human condition so that, when he plays, our human condition will not make us feel so alone. A painter unearths what he sees in the subjects so that we will not miss it.

And many times, it is all wrong. It does not line up with the five points of Calvinism or the Nicene Creed or the Westminster Catechism. We nod in assent though, and occasionally try to sequester it off as a part of our lives which does not belong in Church or polite company. I can’t help but recall though, that the One who gave notice of his perfection by giving the Law, also weeps and laughs and rages and smiles and creates. Theology and art are inseparable as the Godhead is inseparable. Theology, at its highest, leans toward the beautiful ineffability of art. So art, at its highest, speaks great theology. All that is required for theology to be worthwhile is that it be True. What is required for art is that it be Honest. John Wesley and Johnny Cash are not as far apart as we might wish to believe.

This is not an excuse for us to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Part of being honest is telling the truth about how you feel. Another part is telling the truth. How you feel is worth something though. When I hear this poem, I can taste the flesh of the fig, and in that moment, I know God has touched the fruit itself and smiles that I enjoy it.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Gollum and I Glimpse the Sun

On the rare occasion that my dad and my grandfather are out to dinner together, there's always this little spat over who will pay the bill. They each try to get the attention of the waiter first and secretly fork over for everyone's meals. On ministers' salaries, this is always a mystery to me. It certainly has to be a sacrifice, but they say nothing. As for me, I'm much more the kind of guy to snatch a muffin out of the box of leftover pastries if the food bank doesn't come pick them up for a while. I'll find some clever excuse for doing it - always quick to my own defense. They'll just go bad after all. But in the back of my mind, I'm always thinking that I was raised to pay for what I get. It's a blessing and a curse, surely, especially in the context of a relationship that's built on grace and that commends those who work hard not to be a burden to anyone.

I confess, I'm never good at receiving gifts. Today, my birthday, I've been made much of in the form of cards, gifts, well-wishes, and the like. It's well proven that I'm terrible at all of this. Some element of that inward and ingrown creature in me thrives on being left Alone. It lives in stunted and rancid darkness on the rejection of proffered Love. It is promising to feel the light shine on that ugly thing and reveal what it once might have been, what it could be again. It is a Gollum, and deep inside lives a Smeagol, vaguely recalling notions of friendship, of grace, of the absolutely unconditional gift. Part of it must die when it comes into the sun.

Out of sheer lack of practice, I suppose, I exhibit the perverted and graceless side of that good character which causes my dad and his dad to try to pay the bill first. The same drive which, in the hands of the Spirit, longs to give to others and to stand out of the limelight for the Glory of Christ will, away from the life-source of the Spirit, become a thing that cannot bear the wonderfully foolish love of being celebrated by others, and this for fear of the pain caused by Love. For to be loved is to be presented with the possibility to let go of one's own blame, and to release that blame and guilt is to step blindfolded into the floorless expanse only to find that it is also without a ceiling. To allow yourself to be loved is to disremember your own faults. Thank God, we have no authority to judge them anyway.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Photo Exhibit

This and other photographs are now hanging down at Remedy Coffee. Take your friends and go have a cup of fantastic brew at this, my favorite nook in the Old City. Enjoy, and I hope they bring beauty to your world. Many thanks to Sean for letting me hang them.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Why I Love Music

A young lady with muscular but graceful shoulders and dignity underneath her spectacles took the stage. The audience, myself included, was adrift in the breathing wash of anticipation as she paused to gather her thoughts and then moved to the microphone.

The sound of a soul crying out
The sound of a soul crying out
Me say Oh,
My soul cries out

                    -Rhea Scruggs

She was one of many to catch us off guard and remind us how to moan, how to deeply expend the dammed up rivers of the notion that everything is not okay. That night, as I was standing around at Remedy Coffee, someone asked me if I would judge the slam poetry contest. So I played my part in the ludicrous idea of attaching a number to someone's art. I wrote scores on a dry erase board and held it in the air each time a poet finished, hoping they would all recognize the travesty in what I was doing. Truth be told, they were all honest and beautiful. But more than that, they taught me. Faces screwed up into screams and were lined with passions; hands became bullhorns in the air. The failure of decency, the perpetuation of hatred, the exclusion and rejection of Love - these were expounded, and we were made to remember and to be free from the bondage of false smiles. And I remembered why I love music.

The heart, like any other thing, requires a little lubrication now and again. If your body has no salt and no water, you will sicken and die. Plants without nitrogen go awry. And the heart, without beauty, loses the ability to sing its joys and woes. Linford Detweiler of Over the Rhine said that when all your prayers run out, sometimes a song will do. I need that more than I often realize. As a person who stands behind a microphone and often spends time marketing something very human, I quickly teach myself to distrust my emotions. Soon, the stoicism petrifies into pure cold logic. This is not a place you want to go.

The Jews had a practice of hiring mourners to weep at funerals. I used to think this was the epitome of vanity, but anymore I'm not certain that's the case. Something about a woman wailing, something about that guttural human sound, unleashes the chained emotion within us. That sound, that awful sound, feels as if it could twist bone and rend the very air. A person weeping makes it okay to weep ourselves. Perhaps that is the territory of beauty, and despite all our pompous intellectualism, it cannot altogether be written off as trite. A sunset will nearly always stir the waters of the coldest heart. Let us pray the lepers take initiative to step in before the pool is stilled. A little girl's blue curious eyes, so soon from the face of God, cannot but capture you if you're willing to simply look. Truly, emotion is often a bad judge where balancing the checkbook and driving in traffic are concerned, but without it I cannot be human. I need art, honest beauty, to streamline the movements of my heart.

I drove down Rutledge Pike in the evening. The rolling farmland and aged hills spread out beneath the summer sky, and fireflies scattered like hopeful stars across the earthly firmament. We are like them, each of us flashing a signal beacon across the dark, desperately hoping not to spend the brevity of our lives alone. I remembered beauty, and that laughing and crying were sometimes very nearly the same thing, and I remembered how to be human.