Category: Poets, Painters, and Playwrights

A wise word

March 1st, 2012 — 10:20am

“A truly Reformed engagement with culture — and the arts — is not synonymous with evangelical strategies that, trying to overcome their past fundamentalism, eagerly baptize popular culture by ‘finding God’ in every album and sitcom.” (James K. A. Smith)

Read the whole article here.

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Music at home

January 6th, 2012 — 2:14pm

“Since the demise of the medieval scenario in which human beings were seen as inhabiting a God-given order, Western culture has found it increasingly hard to come to terms with the notion of the created world as our intended ‘home.’ Music is less and less thought of as tuning into and respectfully developing an order we inhabit as bodily creatures and instead is increasingly identified as a purely human enterprise, a humanly devised means of shaping sounds for our own interests, a tool of human communication, expression, and persuasion. The idea that music might also be able to elicit something of the character of the cosmos (and through that testify to the Creator) will in many quarters today be treated with disdain, with a cynical smile at best.

“It is not surprising, then, that one of the most critical questions to emerge in our discussion so far is this: to what extent is music grounded in or obliged to be faithful to a world we did not make, a world that we did not fashion but that is in some sense given to us?

(Jeremy S. Begbie, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music, pp. 186–87)

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Gothic architecture

December 23rd, 2011 — 9:09am

“Christ prophesied the whole of Gothic architecture in that hour when nervous and respectable people (such people as now object to barrel organs) objected to the shouting of the gutter-snipes of Jerusalem. He said, ‘If these were silent, the very stones would cry out.’ Under the impulse of His spirit arose like a clamorous chorus the facades of the medieval cathedrals, thronged with shouting faces and open mouths. The prophecy has fulfilled itself: the very stones cry out.” (G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, “The Eternal Revolution”)

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Movies and video games

May 11th, 2011 — 1:41pm

A friend recently asked me why I am a fan of movies but an ardent decrier of video games. What follows is an attempt to respond to that sensible question; my thoughts aren’t particularly well-refined, so take them cum grano salis:

I would want to say initially that I believe an excess of movies can be every bit as deleterious to a child’s development as video games. Children tend to view movies as pure entertainment – no thinking required, all the imaginative work is done for you – and a lust for entertainment is not something I want to cultivate at all. That said, I believe film is a completely different cultural medium from the video game; about the only thing they share in common is a screen.

Video games invite children to participate in activities such as exploring, problem-solving, musical performance, competitive sport, fighting, etc., but to do so virtually rather than in the real world. There are two problems with this: (1) I want my children to live their lives in the world God made, not in a man-made virtual world; and I want them to engage the world using their bodies and brains together, rather than just their brains with the aid of a hand-held control. (2) Video games tend to be addictive precisely because they invite an indeterminate amount of activity (you can keep playing, and playing, and playing, because the activity never ends), without a clear terminus and incentive to walk away.

A movie is completely different. It does not offer an alternative reality to the real world, except in the sense that every story invites sympathetic participation in the lives of its characters (if this were unhealthy, God would have written His Bible very differently!). It does not offer a world that competes with the one God made; nor does it not offer a sphere of pseudo-activity where one can “live and move and have one’s being” virtually. Because of this, and because it has a clear terminus, a movie does not present the same temptations to addiction that a video game does.

More positively, I think of film as a subset of the “storytelling” category of human culture, which flows out of our bearing the image of God, the ultimate Storyteller. Viewing a film is arguably less demanding than listening to or reading literature (though digesting a good film is no easy task!); certainly one participates in the story of a film differently from the way one participates in the story of a book (the eyes are more involved, for one thing). But the fundamental activity (engaging a story) is the same. And in this regard, we must ask whether God Himself does not authorize storytelling that appeals to the visual sense: Isn’t this an implication of the sacraments, or of the various enactments in scripture of a word from the Lord (think of certain strange activities of the prophet Ezekiel)?

Someone might want to say that video games are “creative” whereas film-watching is entirely passive. I think this reflects ignorance both of video games and of film: To the extent one “creates” at all in a video game (the whole experience looks a whole lot more to me like stimulus-response), one does so entirely within the boundaries (visual and conceptual) dictated by the creators of the video game. Film, on the other hand, sets a story before the viewer and leaves the viewer’s response (critical, appreciative, or both) entirely to the viewer.

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I dream of a place

January 20th, 2011 — 10:59am

I dream of a place where there is quiet
And the wind whispers gently in the green
Of a wood, and the stream that flows near by it
Chuckles softly of the places it has been.

I dream of a place where deer are grazing
In the ferns under canopy of mist
Till the birds stir to greet the daylight’s hazing
And the dew and dawn have met again and kissed.

I dream of a place where one may linger
And the hours passing ever are unmarked
By the tick-tock of time’s unfeeling finger
And it matters not how long since one embarked.

I dream of a place where one can listen
Of a place where the world is listening, too
Far away from where baubles gleam and glisten
And the soulless things that men are wont to do.

I dream of a place where sheep are feeding
In a wood in the midst of garden land
Where a King gives to all what all are needing
And the grain and wine flow freely from His hand.

I dream of a place of wondrous pasture
Full of strength for the weary and distressed
Where the King says to all His people, “Cast your
Every burden onto Me, and be at rest.”

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Tether and pang

August 24th, 2010 — 8:50am

by C. S. Lewis

Walking to-day by a cottage I shed tears
When I remembered how once I had walked there
With my friends who are mortal and dead. Years
Little had healed the wound that was laid bare.

Out little spear that stabs! I, fool, believed
I had outgrown the local, unique sting,
I had transmuted wholly (I was deceived)
Into Love universal the lov’d thing.

But Thou, Lord, surely knewest thine own plan
When the angelic indifferencies with no bar
Universally loved, but Thou gav’st man
The tether and pang of the particular,

Which, like a chemic drop, infinitesimal,
Plashed into pure water, changing the whole,
Embodies and embitters and turns all
Spirit’s sweet water into astringent soul,

That we, though small, might quiver with Fire’s same
Substantial form as Thou – not reflect merely
Like lunar angels back to Thee cold flame.
Gods are we, Thou hast said; and we pay dearly.

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Science . . . and art

August 20th, 2010 — 2:17pm

One of the conversations going on in the church that is very old but currently as lively as ever is the one about the relationship between science and theology. Of particular interest to me here is the question from that conversation: To what extent should Christians let the theology they have learned from “special revelation” (scripture) influence their interpretation of “general revelation” (nature) in the course of doing science? I’ve written about this elsewhere before, but it continues to fascinate me, not least because of how many Christians give what is basically the secularist’s answer – “not at all!” It should be beyond dispute (we hear) that any compromise of objectivity is a compromise of science itself; a scientist must come to the data with an open mind and simply see where his investigations lead him.

I’ve thought a lot about this because, as a former attorney, I’m deeply sensitive to the problem of prejudging evidence. Make up your mind about a case before it is presented, and you will be deaf to anything that doesn’t fit your view. Such an approach inevitably yields miscarriages of justice. So it is with science, we understand: let people start believing in demon possession because they read about it in the Bible, and they may start burning people with “demonic” symptoms without ever bothering to consider what medical causes might be in play.

All right, but here’s a difficulty. Suppose we say theology is one domain of study with its own rules (faith working from scripture), and science is another domain of study with its own rules (reason working from nature), and the former mustn’t disturb the latter. Doesn’t this mean we have already placed the “supernatural” firmly outside the bounds of science? Doesn’t this define science in such a way that the evidence can lead nowhere but to purely “natural” conclusions? Isn’t this, then, a prejudging of the evidence? And doesn’t it completely secularize science?

Consider, for example, the Gadarene demoniac. If we met this man today, we would want to have him examined by a physician, and we would not want the interference of crazy religious ideas about demon possession. But suppose some physician, committed to what we now know as the “scientific method,” had run up to Jesus as He encountered the Gadarene, and told Him He was about to corrupt a brilliant opportunity for science with His wild ideas about exorcism. And suppose Jesus had said to this physician, “Your objectivity has blinded you to what’s actually going on here.” Would that have been a corrupting imposition of theology on science? Would that have been a theological prejudging of the scientific evidence on Jesus’ part? Or would it have been an exposure of the prejudging of the evidence on the physician’s part? Hmmm . . . .

I ask this because I recently read something in Jim Jordan’s Through New Eyes that is kind of obvious, but it’s also kind of radical. He says this (p. 29):

“According to the Greeks – and actually all pagans – the world was not made by God. Rather, the world, or the raw material of the world, has always existed. This always-existing stuff just is, and so it is called ‘Being.’ This ‘Being’ stuff is like a blank slate. It is silent and meaningless ‘raw material.’ It does not bear the impress of any Creator, and it does not joyfully shout His name (Psalm 98:4–9).”

If you let this sink in, it means that to look at anything in the world without seeing how it shows off the glory of God is to look at it wrongly; it is, in short, to misunderstand the thing before you. There isn’t anything that is “just there,” naked under the microscope, open to all interpretations. Whatever is already has meaning, because it is created; and this must govern our interpretation of whatever is. How do we know this? Because the Bible tells us so. We can’t very readily throw out our Bible, or we cease to be Christians; and we can’t very readily shelve our Bible when we walk into the laboratory, because it tells us how we must look at everything we find there. This isn’t to say the Bible is a scientific handbook, which scientists must consult for answers to all sorts of scientific questions. It is to say the scientist never deals with anything for which the Bible hasn’t already provided a supernaturalistic interpretive grid – and this surely rules out the possibility of “Christianized” naturalistic science.

Now here’s a kicker: If the biblical understanding that nothing is “just there” precludes scientific interpreting of the world in just any way we please (notably without reference to the Creator), does it also preclude artistic representing of the world in just any way we please? In other words, if the Bible forbids a certain kind of objectivity in science, does it simultaneously impose a certain kind of objectivity in art?

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July 2nd, 2010 — 8:29am

Daniel Boorstin, in The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination, describes the classical distinction between comedy and tragedy:

“By mid-fifth century B.C., Tragedy and Comedy each had staked out different realms. Tragedy recaptured the ancient and the remote, gods and heroes. The spectator could see an enlarged version of himself struggling with grand issues of time and destiny. . . . Tragedy was a vision of events at a great distance in time (usually too in space) from the spectator.

“Comedy held up a mirror to the present. If Tragedy conjured up the unseen, Comedy rescued the familiar from the cliché. Comedy intensified daily experience, dramatizing the garrulous old man, the boastful soldier, the vain courtesan, the rude conceited youth, who all were so commonplace that they had ceased to be interesting. But Comedy made them laughable.” (Boorstin, Creators, p. 214)

Perhaps tragedy and comedy are reverse images of each other. When we look at man through the microscope, blowing him up so he is larger than life, we want to laugh at him. Enlarged beyond his ordinary size, he cannot be taken seriously. But when we look at man through the telescope, placing him on the epic stage of all things, we want to weep, for what is he on such a scale? And we ache for ourselves in him. It is when we see man for what he is, in his created proportions and relations, that we are humbled with hope and not despair, and laugh with joy instead of ridicule. “What is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You care for him? Yet You have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.”

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April 24th, 2010 — 2:32pm

I would enjoy an evening with lots of pipe smoke and Scotch to discuss a Christian response to this development in the arts:

“First in painting and later in theater and poetry, Expressionismus would be used after 1911 to describe the German avant garde much as Futurismo described the Italian. It would be used retroactively to describe Strindberg’s drama. For painters, it represented the replacement of Seurat by Van Gogh as a model; and the assertion of a new goal: to paint not the observed moment in the life of nature, but nature’s inner life, and the inner life of the artist as well.” (William Everdell, The First Moderns, p. 305)

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Real poetry is truth

April 7th, 2010 — 8:37am

“All our talk of invisible things is metaphorical, figurative, poetic. . . . But this does not mean that what we say is untrue and incorrect. On the contrary, real poetry is truth, for it is based on the resemblance, similarity, and kinship that exist between different groups of phenomena. All language, all metaphors and similes, all symbolism are based on and presuppose this penetration of the visible by the invisible world. If speaking figuratively were untrue, all our thought and knowledge would be an illusion and speech itself impossible.” (Bavinck, p. 2.106)

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