Kindle Book on Sale!

To celebrate National Poetry Month, my chapbook, “Water the Mud (Kindle Version)” is on sale for $0.99! (I tried to make it free but the system would have nothing to do with that…sorry! I tried!) Search for “Water the Mud” on your Kindle (or Kindle App) or click here. The sale is good for the month of April. Tell your friends!

Thanks for supporting your local poet!

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.

Clear Gospel, Ambivalent Art Part 1

Jackson Pollock's Mural #631

Last summer, I was asked to join a team that would be responsible for creating a monthly night of worship, called First Wednesday. Our goal is to provide a moment for people to refocus their faith and respond in some way. We attempt to accomplish this goal through music, storytelling, scripture, and…art! My role is twofold: (1)to take the ideas of the group and write a script for the storyteller and (2)to help lead a team of artists that creates original work based on the theme of the night. The art is on display for people to observe as they show up and leave, and then it’s moved to be on display for a month. Incorporating art into the worship experience is a new idea at our church, and I’ve already learned quite a bit about artists, non-artists, and folks who have no idea what to do, say, or think when coming face to face with art.

One of our church’s goals is to share the clear gospel message at every event. And by gospel, I mean the message that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, resurrected from the dead to give us his gift of grace and salvation, and all we have to do to receive that gift is to believe that Jesus, the son of God, died and rose again. There are many philosophies, theologies, and opinions out there that vary from this stance, so we are intent on being crystal clear regarding the words, teachings, and grace of Christ.

However, if we approach art in this same black and white fashion, either as viewers/readers or as creators, we end up with trite, superficial, closed-off works that fail to move/inspire/provoke/challenge.

Why is that?

Because everyone who has approached the cross and walked away from the cross has their own story. If I wrote a poem about my father’s death being the catalyst for developing my own faith, and the poem concluded that in order for you to experience God or to develop your faith, your father would have to die too. That’s ridiculous. For some people, the death of a parent equals liberty and release. For others, relief.

The best art provokes its viewers/readers to walk into the intersection of self, expression, and introspection, to get run-over (or at least honked at!), and to fly away a changed person. All without ever leaving the street.

 

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!

The “Awkwardness” of William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams

A colleague passed along Adam Kirsch’s recent review of books pertaining to William Carlos Williams, his work, and his struggle to be confident as a poet. It’s a fascinating read, and pretty informative. I like how Kirsch writes and I find his criticism (in general) engaging and challenging. In this critique, Kirsch writes, “In his lonely opposition to Pound, Eliot, and company, Williams had need of the courage he described in “El Hombre”:

It’s a strange courage
you give me ancient star:

Shine alone in the sunrise
toward which you lend no part!

Constructions like “realizable actual” and “toward which you lend” are examples of the awkwardness to which Williams is prone, especially when he is dealing in abstractions or trying to sound elevated or fancy.”

Kirsch accuses Williams of trying to sound sophisticated,  resulting in sounding “awkward.”  While Kirsch’s overall assertion may hold true, is this the best poem to use as an example?

Walt Whitman

Titled “El Hombre”, the poem (quoted in it’s entirety above) pays homage to Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Whitman’s long poem ends with the lines “You furnish your parts toward eternity, / Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul” (ln. 131-32). Throughout the poem, Whitman emphasizes perseverance, continuation, and moving forward. Williams’ short little poem actually does a phenomenal job encompassing Whitman’s work while adding his own voice. This instance of apostrophe/allusion/reflection is by no means awkward.

Do any of Williams’ poems fulfill Kirsch’s charge that he’s awkwardly over-trying? Which ones? I’d enjoy reading your thoughts and comments!

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?