Saturday, October 23, 2010

Art and the Church

This is a letter I sent to a friend of mine after reading a letter by artist Makoto Fujimura. To be clear, my intent is not to whine or engender cynicism. As my wife consistently reminds me, we at Sinclair's Eve (our house) trust the Lord to provide. This still seems worth posting, if only as food for thought. The picture is of GM Hopkins.

In making music, writing books and poetry, in taking photographs, my ideas usually have to do with highlighting the beauty of this creation and the ways that it reflects on the Creator. In front of me at this moment is a photograph I took in Scotland, entitled "Sustenance." A board sits upon a restaurant table. Upon the board are a small glazed ceramic bowl of tomato bisque and a few crusts of homemade bread. The silver glint of a spoon twinkles out of the darkness beside the bowl, like a sword in a stone. I see the bread and hear the words, "Remember me." I can taste it just by seeing the photograph. I can hear the melodic tremor of Scottish voices around me in the cafe. I can feel the salt-sea chill sifting through the crossbeams of the ceiling, crying adventure down the street. The photograph is alive.

Yet, I walk past this and see six undeveloped rolls of film beside the front door, waiting like unopened gifts until the money appears. I've nearly forgotten all that is on them. I play shows with an album's worth of songs that have no home, wondering when the money will appear to fund the making of a record. It is a bitter thing to see building after antiseptically designed multi-million dollar building go up in the name of Jesus and wonder when I'll have to break down and flip burgers to feed my daughter. It is frustrating beyond description to see churches believe that they need projectors, sound systems, drum shields, mic stands, and computers upon computers just to be A church, and discover that none of it is offered in the support of my ministry (not to mention that none of it defines what the Church is). I say ministry - the work that I do, I do because I was made to do it. I am learning to come in to this idea. I can refuse, but not only would that be disobedient, it would destroy me as a person. I want to sing songs to you and tell you stories, that the God of Heaven might be magnified, that our consciences might be pricked. Not only that, I want to hear your responses. I don't want for many Good-Jobs and That-Was-Greats. I want to hear that the Holy Spirit brought Truth to bear in your life through what I did. Otherwise, my work feels worthless in the Kingdom. A great artist can effectively be rendered impotent by ceaseless praise, but can be en-Couraged and quickened by an account of how his art was a catalyst of holy change.

But how can I ask for money?

I, who have been given the task of seeing poverty and pain and bearing witness to the needs, cannot in good conscience speak of my own monetary need to the church. Children are sick and enslaved and hungry. I am disgusted at myself at times when I sit down with a plate of food in front of me. How can I ask for money? The welfare of people supersedes the development of film and an executive producer. Still though, at the end of the day, it would be good to have these things. I know that the war on poverty is endless, and I know that budget woes persist. But when the Church cannot answer difficult questions that the World (being the Devil's natural advocate) justifiably raises, I wonder why she, by the denial of her support, would silence the voices of those among her ranks who would ask the same questions in love.

As an addendum, let it be known that this is effectively the transcript of a personal inner argument for me. It is neither a manifesto or a doctrine. I do think the Church should support artists, and I believe Scripture supports this, but here again, if help is given because I or we complain, it might not be the help of a cheerful giver. I do not wish to deny the holy impulse people have to give unbidden.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Net Worth

A 10 o'clock showing of The Social Network gave me cause to look up information on Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, and a tiny incongruence caught my eye. Disclosed in a little grey panel to the right of the Wikipedia page is number. It says this: Net Worth - $6.9 billion. Neither can I remove the final image of the movie from my head. Jesse Eisenberg, as Mark Zuckerberg, stares unsmiling at his computer while a caption touts him as the youngest official billionaire.

What is a man worth?

In the job hunt around town, one comes across little lines on work applications. "Desired Salary," they beg of you, giving you a dollar sign and space to write down your preferred number. Any fool can see the psychological game afoot. What is a man worth? Are you worth as much as your work? How much is that worth? If you earnestly sold the sweater to a man who gave it, willingly gave it, however begrudgingly, to a bone-cold bum begging for change, do you have a share in keeping a cold man warm? If he is reformed and works diligently, becoming the VP of a company and gives five grand, willingly, however self-centeredly, to an ailing school on a Navajo reservation, do you have a share in the literacy of poor children?

Of course. The tiniest mote of a share is still a share, and a sweater is woven of many threads.

If you want to know what a man is worth, then lose him. Proceed, then, to fill the hole left by him with anything but him. You will, at length, find that the more you pour into this hole, the emptier it gets. The mathematical term for this is Infinity. This is to say that you, and everyone you see, is of Infinite worth. It comes with the territory of being made in the Image of an infinite One. Some part of me is indelibly rooted in the joyfully pealing and weighty sound of the Name above all names. Some part of you is, too. It's good to meet you.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Divine Forgetfulness

My wife's gifts as a dancer have often put me in close proximity to the folks at her studio. I've been made to regard this art form which many from my Baptist upbringing would have, in decades past, declined to acknowledge. Thank God that attitude is changing. At the very least, the wonder in me must concede that the human body is a spectacular work of art in itself, and that is not to mention the dancers' abilities to be poetic with it.

I have the gift of being infinitely squeamish about my own corporeal workings. If I have to go get blood taken or have some part of me "looked at," it turns my mind toward the reality of my own organs. There they are, having worked inside of me all this time. How little attention I've paid to them. But when their existence stares me in the face, I feel a mild dizziness and a strong desire to shiver and think about something else (which, of course, causes me to think of nothing but). Not so with my thoughts of other folks. I can watch you from afar and be amazed at how your lungs and mind and heart keep you moving, mostly without your consent and certainly not according to your oversight. It's quite wonderful to consider, but perhaps my discomfort also deserves some consideration.

Paul's little poem in Philippians chapter 2 has always had something to say to me, but mostly, I am struck by the Divine Forgetfulness that Paul so eloquently paints in the first couplet about Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
   did not consider equality with God
      something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
   taking the very nature of a servant,
   being made in human likeness.

In the Greek, the phrase "to be grasped" almost has a violent, rapacious connotation and is rather ambiguous. The ambiguity translates into the English. It could mean that the Lord did not think himself able to be coequal with the Father. It could also mean, however, that he did not particularly think of his equality with God much at all. Often we read that little opening stanza like this:

"Despite the fact that he was God, Jesus did not consider himself equal with God."

It feels good to us to paint that picture of humility. It's an easy thing (and also inversely comforting) for me to be down on myself all the time. A different reading, though, might go like this:

"Because he was God, and that's the way God is as a man, Jesus did not think of himself much at all."

That one is harder. I am no Greek scholar, and the scholars themselves differ on the meaning of this line, but I feel as if that forgetfulness is closer to the heart of our Lord than the piety of the first reading. And, of course, Paul admonishes us that "our attitudes should be the same" as the Lord's. Forget yourself. Or, to put it another way, Lose yourself. Lose your life. Forget where you put it. Set it aside in lieu of someone else. Greater love hath no man than he who lays it down for a friend.

In getting your mind off of you, it's certainly less apt to make you squeamish.