Leaf by Niggle

I’m one of the best procrastinators this world has ever seen. As a child, I was supposed to clean my room every few weeks–pick up, vacuum  and dust. It should have taken 30 minutes max (I didn’t live like a total pig). Yet I would spend my entire Saturday finding ways to put off my cleaning. There were cool toys to play with (instead of putting away). I hadn’t read that book in a while. The vacuum cleaner held an orb of destruction that needed to be diffused by my GI Joe action figures. The guinea pig litter was too stinky. Thus, I turned a short project into an eight-hour dilemma. I missed out on many Saturdays of playing with friends, running around outside, and the general rewarding goodness of completing a task in a timely manner.

Portrait of Niggle

Mr. Niggle

So it is I found a kindred spirit in Niggle, the protagonist in J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle”. (On a completely unrelated side note, I dig his beard.)

Niggle is a painter, and not a very accomplished/talented painter at that. His passion is leaves–he studies leaves, draws them, and paints them. Niggle wants to paint a tree, but feels he hasn’t yet mastered the leaf. He also struggles with completing his work in a timely fashion. He tries to paint but finds excuses not to–he doesn’t know enough, he isn’t good enough, people are interrupting, his neighbor needs help, etc.

One day, Niggle sees a picture of a tree with a forest and a mountain in the background. I can’t tell if the picture is real or in his imagination, but the painting becomes his magnum opus. Unfortunately, his handicapped neighbor’s wife grows ill, and Niggle abandons his work to offer minimal help.

Another side note with a little more applicability than the last: Niggle is defined as “a trifling complaint, dispute, or criticism” (Websters).

Niggle eventually dies, or “goes on his journey” as the story puts it. He spends some time in a hospital/holding cell where he learns to manage his time, is granted grace and freedom by a “doctor”, and is finally released into his new life, which, ironically, is the landscape he had been trying to paint.

Timothy Keller asserts that this story is about work, the value of work, the importance of completing work, etc. I agree, but that idea isn’t what captivated me when reading the story.

I was moved by the artist’s image/perception/understanding of the unknown. As I read it, Niggle, in his own human way, perceived a glimpse of heaven and was trying to the best of his ability to capture it. In life, his vision was broken, hung in a back corner of a museum, and then forgotten about forever. To the outside world, Niggle was a nobody, but he still had a vision, an artistic drive, and the overwhelming fear to ship his product (as Seth Godin puts it).

I fear that I’m like Niggle, a mediocre writer at best in the eyes of the world. If I were to die tomorrow, I doubt that my writing legacy would live for very long. Very few may ever be moved by my work.

But it’s still my work,my poetry, my art. And the people I’ve met in the ongoing process of becoming an expert have given life to my writing that I never thought imaginable. Niggle didn’t have a community of artists (or even friends) to challenge, encourage, and even validate him as an artist. I need to stop getting hung up on whether or not I’m skilled enough, well-read enough, or whatever not-good-enough worries that haunt many artists. Instead, I need to write, which isn’t complete until you read it. And maybe someday, we’ll find ourselves in a more perfect form of your poem or mine.

What fears keep you from writing? Or from sharing your work with the public?

What are your visions of eternity?

The Furious Longing of God: A Review

I’m new to Brennan Manning. Shortly after college, my roommate was seriously impacted by The Ragamuffin Gospel. My wife owns a copy, and it rests in dust with the other basement-banished books. I will need to retrieve it soon, however, as Manning proves to be encouraging and convicting in his latest book, The Furious Longing of God.

Manning makes three major points in his book:

  1. God longs for us furiously, as made evident by Song of Solomon 7:10: “I am my beloved’s,
    and his desire is for me.” (ESV) If God loves us so passionately, why don’t we share that love with others?
  2. Our actions reflect Christ, so if we fail to love those around us then we fail to make Christ visible to the world.
  3. We must love. If we don’t, we cannot be healed and neither can those who continue to hurt.

I am most struck by Manning’s charge to quit worrying about our own personal agendas, about keeping track of who is living what lifestyle. We see the Christian outcry over civil unions and gay marriage. We fret over creationism being banned from the public school classroom. We criticize youth based solely on appearance. And Manning says to cut it out. Our greater American culture tells us that there is no place for God in the public sphere. And we complain, and cry, and demand legislation.

Manning has already called the Waaaaaaambulance to take us away. If the Christian community spent time building relationships and responding to people with compassion and grace instead of demanding that everyone live according to Biblical values, what would the public image of Christianity be then?

I’m critical because I have failed miserably at responding to my surroundings with grace, humility, and  compassion. I’m guilty of relying on the guilt of legalism instead of grace in managing my classroom. I avoided the gay waiters I worked with at Red Robin. I dream of the tongue lashings I can give people after they’ve wronged me. I talk about taking care of the poor, but have failed to follow through.

And none of these behaviors draw anybody closer to the cross of Christ. So how do we change? How do we shift from legalistic judgmentalism to the furious longing of love?

Manning suggests a simple prayer: “Abba, I belong to you.” I’ve added another line: “May my next action be one love.”

Clear Gospel, Ambivalent Art Part 2

Painting by Jackson Pollock

In my previous post, I wrote about the need for ambivalent art in light of presenting a clear gospel, especially in a church setting. One my biggest lessons, however, is that the general/average church-goer has no idea how to contemplate art. This makes me sad. Historically, some of our greatest paintings and architecture were found in the chapels and cathedrals of Europe. When was the last time you drove by a church and said, “Wow, what a beautiful building”? When was the last time you walked into a church and you were struck by the art hanging on the walls?

As I look back on my own experience, I remember two paintings from my childhood church. One was done by a congregation member–it was an autumny-mountain scene. The other was the American stereotypical thin, well-kept, rosy-cheek Jesus. Was there more art? The building itself was no piece of art. Within the church walls, there was teaching, preaching, music, dancing, and movie-watching. But there was little art, and even less talking about it.

I’m disappointed that art is so foreign to church-goers. Is this a failure of the church (as an organization)? Is it a failure of the individuals who comprise the church? Is it a failure of the greater culture to appreciate art? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the Christian church–organizationally not individually–is guilty of copying pop-culture to make it’s own culture more attractive. As an organization, we’ve ignored the command to love our neighbor and to be in the world building relationships. There are many Christian artists/writers/musicians/producers/actors who influence the world outside of the cute little Christian sub-culture. But you don’t hear about them because of their faith, you hear about them because of their art. In the Bible, James talks about showing the measure of your faith by what you do, not what you say. I’m not saying Christians should be shy about their faith. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has changed my life. If you spend any amount of time with me, you’ll eventually hear parts of my story and my faith. But it’s never first out of my mouth, because if I can’t act like my life has been forever changed, the my words, my poems, my art is empty.

But the general public’s lack of appreciation of art cannot be blamed on the church. The church may be guilty of not producing or educating people in terms of art, but our greater culture doesn’t make time or take energy to stop and appreciate art. And why should they? Culturally, we are so focused on giving our attention to things that are tangible, logical, worthwhile, and applicable. For an example of stripping art from ourselves, check out the standards for Colorado. At the high school level, fiction is being replaced by “real-world” reading to give students the applicable skills to survive in the workplace. Our schools are preparing kids to be robots and factory workers, not deep-thinkers and creators (thanks to Seth Godin and his book Linchpin for this terminology).

We do not know how to stop and contemplate something that doesn’t have immediate relevance, meaning, or clarity. We are not okay with mystery.

Creativity?

My musical genius friend Garrett Hope sent me the link to this great Wall Street Journal article on the origin of creativity. There’s cool mention of research revealing the exterior part of the right brain is overactive when creative decisions are made. We are most creative when we are relaxed (no wonder art is being cut from schools…there is no time or need to relax in school). At the end of the article, there is a list of 10 “Creativity Hacks”. The last one is move to a metropolis.

This idea is not really earth shattering, and you may even be asking, “So what.” A few weeks ago I reviewed Beauty Will Save the Worlda book exploring the ways the Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, and unconditional grace undermines the worldly powers of violence. One aspect of the book I failed to mention in my review is the journey mankind takes over the course of the Bible. In Genesis, Man is in a garden. In Revelations, Man is in a populated city.

Regular readers of this blog know how I enjoy drawing connections between God, faith, and creativity. I’ve asserted before that creating, in itself, is an act that makes us like God, an act that conjures Christ. This “move to metropolis” comment strikes me because creating is not entirely complete until the creation is perceived. A poem isn’t fully realized until it is read and discussed (and often revised). Art moves us towards each other, towards community, towards the metropolis. It’s no shock then that the metropolized (according to research) often show more creativity.

I’m not discounting the importance of nature and solitude and their role in creativity. I love being in the mountains, spending time alone in the cool breeze listening to the squawks and scuffles of the world. I love writing in these situations. But I also like to come back to civilization. The artist in me drives me to be a hermit, and drives me to be a neighbor. Such ambivalence. Such beauty!

Beauty Will Save the World: A Review

photo by daveynin (Creative Commons)

When you go for a drive around town, how often are you struck by the beauty of the architecture of strip malls, fast-food joints, and freeway exits? Does the brown cloud camping over your metropolis plant awe in your heart?

We are growing ugly. Logically, we’re growing ugly because we are losing beauty–it isn’t important to us in our architecture, in our studying, in our politics, in our entertainment, in our daily interactions with each other.  In Beauty Will Save the World, Zahnd asserts that our world is ugly because the axis on which the world revolves is one of power and violence. According to Zahnd, we (globally) spend over 3 billion dollars a day on defending ourselves. The United States accounts for 56% of that number. As we spend exorbitant amounts of money on political campaigns, weapons, and walls, there are places where people can’t even get a drink of fresh water, or enjoy a full meal for that matter. (Side note: check out globalrichlist.org. If you make $25,000 a year, that places you in the richest 10% in the world! Obama considers this income below poverty. Really? Really? I’m not sure if any of our politicians really understand the true depth of poverty. Do you? Do I?)

Zahnd’s main premise is that Jesus, through his death and resurrection, tilted the earth’s axis to one of love. His argument, while inefficiently written, is powerful and fascinating. Zahnd takes us to the beginning of history, when Cain killed Abel. God cursed him, and Cain went and founded a city. Zahnd asserts that this city was essentially founded on murder and violence, the consequence of his murderous actions, thus setting into motion a pattern of building power through violence. Zahnd does an amazing job of calling out the American church in its support for our imperialism. Zahnd writes,

“[T]here is always a particular temptations faced by the church when it is hosted by a superpower. The temptation is to accommodate itself to its host and to adopt (or even christen) the cultural assumptions of the super power. . .[T]he problem that is distorting American evangelicalism is that it has become far too accommodating to Americanism and the culture of superpower. . .The dominant American script is that which idolizes success, achievement, acquisition, technology, and militarism. It is the script of a superpower. But this dominant script does not fit neatly with the alternative script we find in the  gospel of Jesus Christ. So here is our challenge: when those who confess Christ find themselves living in the midst of an economic and military superpower, the are faced with the choice to either be an accommodating chaplain or a prophetic challenge. . . We need to bear the form and beauty of the Jesus way and not merely provide a Christianized version of our cultural assumptions.”

This is a kick to the stomach of any church who preaches both the gospel of grace and salvation and justifies any act of violence against another human being (bombing, slaving, trafficking, etc.). Jesus himself undermined the Roman axis of power in his day by claiming to be the king of heaven (and eventually all of Earth). Zahnd explains that through grace and forgiveness, Jesus undermined and invalidated Caesar’s power. Additionally, Zahnd points out that Jesus was able to take one of the most offensive, painful, frightening, and ugly symbols of death in Western history and turned it into a beautiful symbol of faith and life.

“It is the beauty of Christ’s love and forgiveness as most clearly seen in the cruciform that is able to save us from our vicious pride avaricious greed . . . [which] are often pawned off as virtues in the culture of a superpower.”

Zahnd  believes that it is the role of the Christian then to not “protest the world into a certain moral conformity, but to attract the world to the saving beauty of Christ . . . because God is more like a musician than a manager, more like a composer of symphonies than a clerk of keeping ledgers.”

And this is why art is important. Zahnd asserts that art is not as valuable in a pragmatic culture like a 21st-century United States. Whether it’s politics, economics, education, technology, business, or career, practicality reigns over aesthetics. Art is not practical, but it sure is beautiful. Zahnd uses the cathedrals found in Europe as an example of architecture exhibiting beauty and awe.  Art most likely will never provide a consistent paycheck for most of us. It just isn’t practical. And neither is Jesus dying on the cross or resurrecting from the dead. But both are awe-inspiring, mysterious, life-changing, beautiful.

Would the gospel of Jesus Christ be beautiful to those who don’t believe it if it weren’t based on pragmatism, logic, and usefulness? Would the beauty of the gospel be seen if Christian art sought to reflect originality and uniqueness in an axis of love?

photo by Eric Lars Bakke

I will leave you with this thought. I think the Tim Tebow phenomenon is an accurate microcosm of how evangelical Christians treat people outside of their (our) circle of belief. And I’m not talking about Tebow himself. I’m talking about his fans. Those who disassociate themselves with any who say something critical of their idol. It’s an us vs. them mentality, which often resorts to name calling, verbal abuse, and all around ugliness. If that’s how the followers of Jesus act to those who have a different world view, how will the gospel of Jesus’ grace and salvation ever be beautiful?

Renga Party!

Calling all poets and writers! Let’s have a renga party. Right now. For those who don’t know what a renga is, click here for a quick tutorial. Here’s a quick rundown (summary) so we can get this started:

  • Renga is linked verse, composed by a group
  • Each verse must stand alone and somehow relate to the verse that comes before it
  • Verses alternate in length between 3 lines and 2 lines
  • First verse is a haiku (and all subsequent verses are written in a similar style)
  • The opening verse mentions the season of composition (it’s winter here in Colorado, USA)
  • Over the course of the renga, every season should be mentioned (not necessarily in order)
  • Each verse should link to the verse in front of it, then shift to another image/idea

That’s enough for the first go around. Let’s go for 20 verses by using the comment stream.  Don’t worry if you don’t feel like an accomplished poet. Join in the fun. Let’s see what happens! See the comment section to read the first verse. Then, first come first serve!