Saturday, November 20, 2010

The liberation of being average part 2: feeling free to dream small

Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore stand in awe of God.
Ecclesiastes 5:7

One of the great staples in children's entertainment is best distilled in a song in Blue's Big Musical Movie, in song, no less. You can be anything that you want to be, do anything that you want to do. If you can dream it then you can do it the moral goes so the implicit admonition is to dream the biggest dreams you can dream.

Many of us know the film It's a Wonderful Life. Many of us know that George Bailey dreamed of leaving his penny-ante hometown to go and see the world, to build big buildings and see and do great things. He didn't get to do any of those things but as the film so poignantly tells us, George Bailey really did have a wonderful life. He made the lives of the people around him better despite not having attained any of his great dreams. Without George Bailey to save his brother his brother would not have gone on to be the war hero he became. Yet by the time of his fateful encounter with Clarence he is bitter and resentful and believes he would be better off dead than alive or, perhaps even better (as the author of Ecclesiastes grimly noted) to have not been born so as to not see how miserable things are in this world.

Less explicit in the film's narrative is that the man who has attained the greatest achievements in that penny-ante town is one of the most reviled and distrusted people in that town, Mr. Potter. Something the ancients frequently understood that we lie to ourselves about is the nature of the hero. We lie to ourselves and each other about the cost of being a hero on any scale. Every hero to one is a villain to another. The person who heroically accomplishes great things destroys the lives of people along the way in attaing his victory.

Ecclesiastes warns that with much dreaming and many words there is foolishness and that we should fear God. My reflection upon this precept lately has been in looking at the arts and what I have wanted to do and what I have seen others want to do. To frame this all rather cynically there are three things idealists aspire to, four that they rarely accomplish: a trilogy of fantasy novels; an innovative rock song; a screenplay filmed exactly as written; and getting anything done.

I look back on my own idealistic aspirations in the arts with a little embarrassment. I thought I was going to accomplish big things. I guess most teen-aged boys dream big and think the sky is the limit. I was disabused of this no sooner than I graduated from college and tried to find a job to pay the rent. The band I was in was never going to go anywhere and I figured that out after a few years but I didn't feel like bailing on the band for something more potentially "promising". I have since not exactly entirely abandoned pop or rock music but have not really hung any hopes on doing the rock thing. I also found over time that I really enjoyed composing chamber music. The dreams I had of what I was going to accomplish and the plans I made to accomplish those things have by and large not come to pass. I don't think they ever will come to pass.

There are two ways we can use our ambition to look down on other people. Really there are only two relationships we can have with other people in light of our ambition depending where we are in relationship to accomplishing those ambitions. Either we look down on others for not having our ambition as though that meant their dreams were nothing. Or, as I suspect is more common among mediocre, average, bad, and inferior artists, we can look down on others who are actually getting work done because we believe our ambitions and vision will ensure that we do better than them. I definitely have always been in this second category even when I managed to accomplish anything myself.

When I was in my teens I faulted my peers for their lack of vision. One of my high school teachers who was a mentor to me said that if I had managed to find a creative vision to motivate me to feel lucky and not hold it against other people that they didn't have it at such a young age. Most people don't find their creative vision until later in life, if at all. In hindsight I realize that a downfall latent within a strong creative vision is that traps you into such a narrow or didactiic frame of mind that you don't get anything done. I wanted my work to have content and meaning but I also was not particularly prolific. Other people were prolific and didn't think at all about content or meaning. Truthfully it seems that you can't avoid one at the expense of the other--by dint of production themes will emerge and by dint of exploration of a theme one will at some time become more prolific.

Now that I'm in my thirties and nearing forty I consider all the people I have known and it seems as though the people who have dreamed some of the biggest dreams for projects in a creative enterprise have had the smallest production. There's a guy I used to know who, when I met him ten years ago, had like so many other guys before him, resolved to write a trilogy of fantasy novels. My brother once said that it seems that every guy who wants to write fantasy has to conceive of a trilogy of fantasy novels. Some unobtrusive and overlooked boy of humble beginnings turns out to be the chosen one who was prophesied about long ago who will conquer the forces of evil and bring about a new era of peace and prosperity the likes of which the benighted earlier epochs did not know.
Curiously the idea that the landmark fantasy trilogy told the opposite sort of story
seems to get less attention. The idea that someone is chosen to bear the terrible task of carrying the distillation of evil and abusive power to the point of death so that its power is diminished but ushers in the final crumbling of the remnants of an earlier, great age, is not usually what people think makes for great fantasy-telling even though that's how Tolkien did it. The number of heroic epics that end happily ever after may not be so big as we think. Arthur's kingdom ends in ruins. Beowulf ultimately falls. Even the Jedi, yes, are all but obliterated and survive only because one jedi refuses to follow the deceptive and bad advice of his mentors (for the record the prequels reveal that Obi-wan and Yoda are preening imcompetent fools).
Actually there is another guy who was interested in writing a trilogy of fantasy novels. His first novel went through several drafts that were frankly painful to read but he has over time dropped (so far as I know) the fantasy trilogy part in favor of just getting something done.
Another fellow I met had settled upon writing a rock opera (I considered it at several points in my life so I get the appeal). Neither he nor I ever finished a rock opera. I certainly haven't even come close to composing anything like a passion setting that I had planned for years. I have at best composed two movements of a Mass. I have not composed any of the big projects I set out to do and when I have begun the projects I have not finished them. It took me ten years to finish what I at various times thought was going to be a gigantic piano sonata. When I finished the sonata it turned out to be ten minutes.

But I had comparable or greater delusions of grandeur for myself for much of my life. When I look at the lives of people who dreamed big and didn't accomplish any of those dreams I am looking at my own life. I never became the poet I wanted to be in my teens. I never even kept interest in politics long enough to get into politics. I wanted to go into New Testament studies in my undergrad days but I ended up a communications major. I minored in music composition by the time I finished and was more interested in music by the time I finished my journallism degree than I was interested in journalism. I found that I don't have that much of a gift as a writer of fiction. I am at best merely a competent poet. I am a guitarist and some people have said that I'm good but I am at best a guitarist of average technical ability who has a higher-than-average interest in musical form.

As a scholar of biblical literature I am below average as I never learned the biblical languages and merely have a middling Christian's affection for the Bible. Sure, I enjoy reading Leviticus and Deuteronomy but before you think I"m some saint I skip the genealogies in Numbers without remorse.

All of this is to say that when I look at myself and my actual life it was unfair of me to look down on other people as having less vision or ambition than I had in the arts. I have come to a fuller appreciation of a view that I always used to hate, the idea of creating art for the sake of art. Believe me, words fail me to describe how much I loathed the idea of art for the sake of art. I still feel weird about it. I still often feel as though the arts are in some sense not as useful as the sciences. I wanted to get into the sciences when I was a child and some part of me still sees the arts as time-wasting enterprises and science or engineering as somehow more useful. But God has created a world in which both sorts of activities can be pursued by the same people. Plus I never got beyond rudimentary algebra and remember virtually none of it. But I digress, as usual. Here I am blogging about how I wanted to do great things and I'm a nobody. There are folks who have a big public voice who describe themselves as nobodies but they're fooling themselves. :) Wenatchee the Hatchet obviously isn't my real name and odds are good (I hope) that you don't know me from Adam unless you know me personally. I haven't done much of anything that is ultimately that special and here I was a kid who thought he was going to do big things. Maybe getting a few possibly dubious or possibly kosher prophecies from charismatic acquaintences accounts for that.

What I have been trying to say is that for those who dream big and have ambitions to do big things with art that thing may be the greatest obstacle to you ever getting anything done. Abandon ambitions for great accomplishments in an art and replace it, if you can, with a love and joy in simply doing things for the fun of it. So the story goes Robert Frost had two aspiring poets come to him asking to learn how to become poets. One man said he had great and important things he wanted to say, the other said he just liked playing with words. Frost, so the story goes, chose the second man as the one who would actually make a good poet.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to say important and valuable things, of course, but a person bent on saying one thing would do well to heed the advice of pastors, find your one sermon and never stop preaching it! If you want to be a preacher, a one-note instrument, a one-trick pony and to be known for the amazing qualities of that one thing, then by all means go for it. It's okay to be a one-trick pony. Being, in essence, a one-trick pony got Jackie Chan his film career for years if you get my meaning. Just make sure no one on earth does your one trick as well as your pony does. But there is a sense in which, at the end of all that, you became the best at something because your goal was ultimately small enough to be perfected. As the psalmist so often wrote, selah.

In the first part of this reflection I wrote about how we generally consider ourselves above average. We imagine that we are better, more moral, more productive, and more inventive than we generally really are. The world is full of people who could have started rock bands or written rock operas; of people working on screenplays that will never get finished or never get filmed once they are finished; of people working on symphonies that will never be played and on books that will never get published. We can tell ourselves that what we are working on is as good or better than any of the junk out there that is currently getting published and in our minds it is but that does not make it so. It is true, as Brad Bird's Anton Ego put it, that more time and thought went into the creation of a piece of common junk in the arts than the review that designated that work as junk. Critics take that personally and they should because it is true.

But it is also true that most of us who aspire to write that comic book or finish that symphony or write that rock song or finish that screenplay or design that breakthrough in engineering simply won't do it. The bigness of our ambitions may have defeated us. And suppose we attain that big thing we went for? There is nothing new under the sun. The trilogy of fantasy novels was done by Tolkien. The big symphony was done by Beethoven ... and Mahler ... and Shostakovich. The graphic novel thing covers so many people I won't bother to list them. Even our greatest feats can and will be and have been dwarfed by other people with greater accomplishments. Whatever legacy we think we will leave is going to vanish, as Ecclesiastes so glumly warns us. How do we know that those who inherit these legacies we build for ourselves will even be worthy of the legacy? Have any of Lennon's sons lived up to the greatness of the legacy John Lennon's fans ascribe to him?

We are all much more average than we think we are and even those of us who are truly above average are aware, perhaps awkwardly aware, of just how limited they really are. Every one of us has a temptation at some point to look at something someone else did and say "I can do better than that." We are at some point tempted to begrudge someone else for having accomplished something we think we are already good enough to have pulled off or wish that we had accomplished by now.

This is a point where we, if we are Christians, can utterly fail to rejoice with those who rejoice. For our own lives it is okay to dream small for this life. If in Christ we have a promise to rule and reign with Him and to one day judge the angels not only should we learn from this to adjudicate smaller matters among ourselves, we should remember that Jesus said that whoever is faithful with little will be faithful with much. It is okay to acknowledge that in the eternal scope of things what we have been given is little. God can destroy any legacy we build for ourselves in a few minutes. We ourselves are capable of destroying a legacy that took a lifetime to build with just a few minutes of deciding something stupid that may not even be sinful. Jehoshephat's last decision as king led to the slaughter of his sons and a reversal of nearly everything he worked his whole life to achieve.

Rather than fool ourselves into thinking we have any legacy we may not even have in this world, let us remember to fear God. When foreigners and eunuchs were addressed by the Lord in Isaiah 56 He told them to not consider themselves withered, fruitless trees for the Lord Himself would establish a monument and a legacy for them, an inheritance and a name better than sons and daughters. In the ancient world sons and daughters, of course, were the hope that the family legacy could continue. God has revealed to us that that, too, can merely die. If our legacy is in Christ than though we become failures in everything that can be measured in this world we receive an inheritance in Christ that cannot perish. In this way we can appreciate Paul's advice that those who are married should live as though they are not and those who are free as though they were not free. When we properly understand what our real legacy is in Christ we understand that it is His legacy and not ours. Christ bore both the greatness and the weakness of our legacies to save us from them.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

another link to the BHT

I don't know where J.S. found this but this could exemplify the worst impulses in theo-blogging in a very jocular way. Not that I'd say anyone should actually go ELCA at any point since I agree with my friend that the ELCA manages to only be American and may not quite so much be any of those other things in the acronym.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

thoughts spurred by some new activity on the BHT

The question of why evangelicals stink at the arts has come up again over at the Boar's Head Tavern. One proposal was the lack of sacramentalism in evangelicalism. Not so sure if that's really the case. It's tempting if you look at how some of the big innovators in art, literature, and music in the last century or so came from Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox backgrounds ... and yet ... and yet there are plenty of people of no faith whatever that made remarkable works of art.

I think J. S. Bangs is on to something here:

I’m with Bill on the sanctification discussion, and against Capon. (I think. I haven’t actually read Capon on this, so really I’m just reacting against Capon as filtered through other BHT members.) But watch me connect this to the other conversation from yesterday: I think that this truncated understanding of salvation is the big reason that evangelicals suck at art. Salvation is gettin’ good with Jesus, and once you’ve got good with Jesus there’s nothing else to do. So not only sanctification, but art, beauty, etc. have no real place in this scheme, and the art that can properly be called Christian art is that which is made to help you get good with Jesus.

Here I mean to replicate but also correct spellings in something I shared with J. S. about his proposal:

I was reading an article in the Guardian a year ago (or maybe it was this year) where the author pointed out that we can see a curious dichotomy in the legacy of the Puritans. On the one hand they could often be very much against the arts and yet they gave us an amazing body of poetry and literature. They could be startlingly legalistic and yet amazing champions of individual conscience and liberty. Perhaps both the good and bad of the Puritans might speak to their actually giving a crap about sanctification and incorporating that concern into the arts? Just an idea I’m playing with.

In the works of Bach we could, arguably, see a nexus between traditional Lutheran thought and the integration, some say, of pietistic elements. Now if this were something by Rod Rosenbladt we'd jump into the dangers of pietism as a corruption of understanding justification by faith (or not, I plead ignorance of the bulk of Rosenbladt's work other than his compact but compelling The Gospel for those Broken by the Church). But since this is Wenatchee the Hatchet and not Mockingbird or Internet Monk and since J. S. is a friend of mine whose ideas in this case I find very compelling I'm going to run with his idea.

If you look at the actual lives of many of those ostensibly Catholic and Orthodox composers who were major innovators (i.e the actual lives of guys like Stravinsky or Haydn and what not) we'd see folks who would have or should have come under church disciplinary procedures so hard and fast their heads would have spun. Just about anyone who knows anything about Johnny Cash can surmise that his faith in Christ was genuine and that he was a genuinely flawed, fallible guy! Cash did not attempt to sand off the roughest edges of his failures in a walk after the Lord and that, we should probably agree, is why his work is of lasting value. Cash may well be a popular Protestant example of how someone who is not locked into the CCM template/prison can actually be a fully balanced artist and, however flawed, also a balanced Christian in exploring both how one gets right with/through Jesus and how that actually may look in the messiness of life.

I would go so far as to say that a Catholic like Messiaen was brilliant because he managed to compose music that was not merely (or even generally EVER) about jsutification. You may grant the minute you hear it tha tmeditations on the Holy Trinity is a sonic mess of a piece for organ. Ditto The Lives of the Saints or the Meditations on Pentecost. But the titles all suggest that Messiaen was able to integrate his work around the church year. Bach is the uber-exemplar for Lutherans. I would say that in our own time Arvo Part has demonstrated that it's possible to create compelling, contemporary and wonderful art.

Now here, to throw a bone to the folks who aregue that the problem with evangelical art is its lack of sacramentalism, we may suggest that the sacramental observation and the sanctification observation are two sides of the same thing. What are sacraments but means of mediating grace? Saving grace? Soteriological grace? No. Sanctifying grace? Yeah.

So in a way the statement that evangelical art founders due to a lack of sacramentalism and that evangelical art founders due to a lack of emphasis on sanctification in its obsession with a transactional view of salvation are basically the same observation from two different sides of the wound. At the risk of yet another sweeping generalization those who see a lack of sacramentalism or symbolism in evangelical art may be seeing things from the side of a kind of post-structuralist post-modernist abandonment or shared narrative that in evangelical or fundamentalist Christianity curiously predated post-modernism as a formal movement. The outward mechanisms and tools for articulating a symbolic iteration of life in Christ was rejected a priori as "dead formalism" and "traditions of men".

From the other side of the breach, though, the lack of emphasis on sanctification sees the wound from the perspective of recognizing that merely accepting Jesus as king does nothing to articulate or expand upon the implications of this kingship. The sacramental side may see a lack of vocabulary or tools to use the arts to embody feelings that must exist and are necessarily inherent in the Christian experience. Meanwhile, from the perspective of those who see transactionalism as drowning out any other experience of Christ the concern is that the transactional theology in evangelical art actually precludes the possibility of feeling those things the sacramentalist might think are actually being felt. One critique proposes a lack of a vocabulary for sharing experiences while another, perhaps, goes so far as to propose that the vocabulary that has been codified in "evangelical" art has straitjacketed the very concepts and feelings that are even possible to express. So I think J.S. was right to say that there may be different emphases on the same basic flaw in the arts in evangelicalism.

If the example of the Puritans reveals the best and worst attitudes and precedents regarding the arts then it means they were always hot or cold.
Those of us who are in any sense artists might here dare to allude to the words of the Lord, there are times and places where it is better to be hot or cold than to be lukewarm. It's better to see how art can explore and encourage sanctification or avoid it altogether than to subject art to such a truncated theology as a transactionalist understanding of life in Christ. If evangelical art is obsessed with the initial moment of "have you done business with God?" they need to understand that sanctification is what happens when, to press this metaphor further, a Christian does not merely buy Jesus but becomes a regular customer. The non-evangelicals and the old-school evangelicals (a la Bach, etc) obviously got this.

Evangelicalism, to the extent that it is fixated on a transactional comprehension of salvation, will be limited to either the discussion of the transaction or the anticipation of or a demand for a new transaction. In American spirituality this will take two generic forms. The first would simply be the "How I got Saved" narrative. The second would be the "We Need Revival" narrative. Of course this is wildly broad and unfair but there are kernels of truth to this. Consider how popular "Amazing Grace" is in American folk music. Does this not represent the archetypal "How I got Saved?" narrative compressed and distilled into its most universal expression in the English language? There are good reasons it is both one of the most compelling as well as the most beautiful and simple articulations of comprehending the mystery of salvation in Christ. Indeed arguably the entire musical life of the Church really should center on this one central proclamation.

I've rambled enough for this entry. What J. S. wrote is a great catalyst for thought and discussion. I hope this discussion can keep some momentum over at BHT. If Michael Spenser were alive to read it I think he might well be please.