The Mystery of God and Art

November 30, 2010 § 1 Comment

Note: This was originally supposed to be a guest blog somewhere, but the author of that blog never got back to me. So I thought I’d post it here.

They are the most wonderful mystery, body and blood.”- Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

I remember the first time I took Communion at the Anglican church that I now attend.  It was a revelation to me. It was a grave, joyful matter, and as I swallowed my bread dipped in wine I felt blessed by that bread and wine in a way that I never had before. It was more than just a way to remember, but it was charged with a certain energy because it was being taken seriously as a Sacrament.

HoffmanCarlsonHoffmanBonfires_500.jpg

Why hadn’t I ever experienced this before? Was it because my previous church was so afraid of appearing Catholic that we didn’t ascribe any significance beyond remembrance to Communion or is it a symptom of a deeper problem in many churches? Sometimes it seems as if there is a fear in the Church of using art or symbols that we don’t understand or can’t control because we don’t know what they will reveal to us. It seems to me that a lot of churches and Christians have carved out a canyon between art and symbolic actions and church and Christianity and then burned the bridge that spans this gap.

We have art and symbols to point us to deeper things. We have church and Christianity to point us to deeper things. It seems to me as if they are on the same team.  Art, as mystic poet Kahlil Gibran puts it, is “a step in the known toward the unknown.” Good art can transcend the here and now and touch our emotions in ways that words can’t. Art, like God and his ways, is a mystery and that’s why it can show us God. It reveals things hidden and sometimes hides things already revealed forcing us to look deeper.

Another thing art and symbols do for our faith is to ground it in its sometimes forgotten physicality. As the great Creeds and Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 remind us, the Christian’s greatest hope is the bodily resurrection, therefore making the physical presence of the body very important. The symbol of Communion or making the sign of the cross, by involving our body, reminds us that the Christian faith is a faith that radically affirms our physical nature as being a good creation of God.  There is no Gnostic split between spirit and flesh in Christianity. This is constantly reaffirmed when we taste the bread and wine and know that they speak of a deeper reality, of Christ’s body and blood. Our physical senses, by means of a physical symbol, are drawn deeper in a spiritual reality.

Artwork is Bonfires by Chuck Hoffman and Peg-Carlson Hoffman.

Questions

October 12, 2010 § 2 Comments

“Questions are not scary. What is scary is when people don’t have any. What is tragic is faith that has no room for them.”-Rob Bell

Recently, I made a video for my Rhetorical Theory and Criticism class. We were supposed to take a quote and visual it. Above are both the video and the quote which I based the video off of. I think it’s a decent little video considering the equipment and time I had to do it. The music is England by The National. I picked a song by The National, because I wanted to capture a sense of longing inherent in us whenever we ask questions. We are asking questions because there is a hole in our knowledge, experience or emotions. This longing is something we should embrace.

List of questions (some are hard to see):

Who are you? Who is God? Why are we so afraid…of everything? What if you gain everything and then lose…? Are we just consumers? What if? What is truth? Is there truth? What is love? Who is my neighbor? What if nobody is ordinary? Why do we miss the glory?

I made the signs of out various newspapers, pieces of colored paper, a Sprite bottle, really anything I found lying around my room. Making the signs easily took five times as long as making the video.

Churches Making Movies: A Few Thoughts

September 7, 2010 § 2 Comments

I found myself browsing the Internet and ran across an article from July 2010 in USA Today entitled, “Churches Making Mainstream Movies”. The article focuses on Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, GA, the force behind movies such as Facing the Giants (2006, Kendrick) and Fireproof (2008, Kendrick) and the reasons why other churches are beginning to follow in the same footsteps as Sherwood. As I was reading I was bothered by some of the statements quoted and by some of the things contained in the article. Now before I begin to explain why, I want to say I’m not discounting God’s ability to use anything and everything for His glory and I know people who have been touched through these films. I don’t want this to be a hate-fest on my fellow Christians. That being said, there are several troubling implications of the marriage of art and faith offered by these films.

“And every ending is on an up note: Once characters start to peacefully, prayerfully trust God in adversity as well as success, all their prayers are answered. They win the big game, pay off the bank, have the long-wanted baby, reconcile with loved ones.” This quote from the author of the article is one of the most troubling parts of the article. Can God do miracles? Yes. Does He always do them? No. When a “Christian” movie purports that everything will work out as soon as you start trusting God it is veering into “prosperity gospel” territory which stands in stark contrast to the Bible itself (read Luke 9 to see what Jesus tells his disciples about this life). The Christian hope is not a perfect life in this world, but one in the world to come. Paul’s life was not fun or great in terms of his physical existence. Sometimes God doesn’t answer our prayers the way we want them answered. Are we bringing people into the Church by lying to them, by confirming our hopes and dreams in this age instead of the one to come?

“Movies are an escape. They offer hope. And Sherwood is stepping up to claim that the only hope that matters is Christian,” says Michael Catt, senior pastor at Sherwood. While I take exception to his assertion that movies are primarily an escape from life, I agree that the Christian hope is beautiful and worthy of being told to everyone. But in light of the films that Sherwood is producing, what is this hope? People are going to identify the “Christian” hope with what is said by the film. They will begin to identify the “Christian” hope with peace and prosperity in this life. This is not the Christian hope as I and many leaders of the Church throughout the ages understand it. To be sure, there is a peace that comes with knowing that you have a purpose in this world, but the Christian hope is the world (and human beings within it) being restored and reconciled to God. The picture is bigger than just what happens to me or you, and even if this is what Catt believes it doesn’t come through in the films produced by Sherwood. Do we want a very individualized version of Christianity (regardless if this is how we actually think about our faith) being presented through the screen?

Later in this article comes this: “Every movie has an agenda,” says Catt, citing James Cameron’s Avatar, widely noted for its vague eco-spirituality theme. “Clearly, (he) had a spiritual agenda there, and he’s out to reach his audience. So are we. We have lost this culture, and we have to fight back.” What he says is true: every movie contains an agenda or purpose, even if it is unaware of it. It is frightening, however, that he is proud of the overt agenda in these films. The best films I’ve seen are the ones that subtly introduce their points and quietly subvert other stories. Avatar was not a good movie, due in part to its glaringly obvious agenda. Also worrisome is the fact that Catt is proposing a battle over culture, when perhaps Christians are no longer vital parts of the culture because of films like Facing the Giants. I firmly believe that Christians need to be making culture, but the only way that we can actively participate is if we make good culture. That is how we “fight back”.

The rest of the article talks about different people making other Christian movies and I wish I could be excited about that. I’m glad Christians are making movies but if the movies aren’t good, then is what they’re doing really good? If our faith has to be simplified to put in a movie, is it still our faith? What is really being said about the Gospel in the name of evangelism? These are questions anyone who is a Christian making film (or art in general) must ask themselves. The way in which we present the Gospel effects how it is perceived and thought about. A serious responsibility rests upon us as artists and creators created in the Image of God to think critically about how we present the Gospel story in art. Presenting the Gospel as an “escape” from this world and its problems and using art as a way to sell the Gospel is a dangerous proposition.

All quotes taken from this article: http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2010-07-19-churchmovies19_CV_N.htm?loc=interstitialskip

A movie made by a Christian that serves as a great example of how I think Christians should approach film is The Sensation of Sight. You can watch it on Netflix instant or get more info at http://www.thesensationofsight.com/

Ink

August 29, 2010 § 2 Comments

This summer’s biggest movie was Inception. Christopher Nolan’s big-budget spectacular focused on one thing that continues to evade human understanding: dreams. Dreams capture our interest because they are mysterious and as much as we understand the mechanics or physiology behind them, we never really grasp what they are all about. Most of them are fleeting, gone with the morning sun, but some stay with us and we don’t know why. Sometimes they mean something, but most of the time they mean nothing, and yet we continue to dream.

Dreams are the jumping off point of a movie I watched recently called Ink (Jamin Winans, 2009). But unlike Inception, Ink wants its dreams to count for more. Winans uses dreams as a way to describe the presence of things unseen, veering into deeper territory than Nolan mined in Inception. Ink centers around a business man, John (Chris Kelly), and his relationship with his daughter, Emma (Quinn Hunchar). This, the main thrust of the film, is surrounded by two groups of unseen characters, The Storytellers and the Incubi (plural of Incubus).

The Storytellers come to you while you are sleeping and give you good dreams, while the Incubi come with nightmares. The film really begins when a mysterious character named Ink kidnaps Emma in her dreams, which means she can’t wake up in the real world. We follow Ink and Emma through the dream world, as in the real world John is facing a big business deal that could destroy his career if it doesn’t come through. When John refuses to come see his daughter, now in a coma, we know that truly lives for himself and no one else. This is confirmed later as we John followed by an Incubus who whispers in his ear day and night.

This sets in motion a chain of reactions that would be unfair for me to disclose, because this independent movie truly is a treat to watch and ponder. Its small budget for a film of this genre doesn’t stop it from being visually interesting, as Winans employs several filters and color schemes to bring out different parts of the dream worlds. And occasionally the script tries a little too hard, but I would rather a script that tries to provoke thought and does it poorly at times than one that never attempts it at all. The thing, however, that stood out most to me as I watched, was the conviction that Winans invests in these unseen characters.

They are every bit as real as John and Emma. The movie doesn’t conclude with Emma and John both waking up and having dreamed of the Storytellers and Incubi, but continues to posit them as real beings. We are forced to take them seriously as they struggle against each other, and by doing so are made to consider the possibility that in our world there may be things like this happening. There may be more than we see on the surface. As a Christian, it’s a vibrant picture of spiritual warfare, especially in some of the film’s impressive fight sequences.

Ink succeeds by creating a world that is believable that evokes thought. For as much as I liked Inception and the many things it did well, it barely scraped the surface of deeper issues. This is what Ink does well and with a measure of creativity that far exceeds its budget. Highly recommended.

Filmwell‘s very insightful review of Ink can be found here.

Glory in The Thin Red Line

August 10, 2010 § 1 Comment

What is “glory”? We often associate it with fame or a person having achieved a specific position or status in life. Limiting glory to only this seems to leave out some of the more impressive definitions that it also embodies such as: “resplendent beauty or magnificence” or “a state of absolute happiness, gratification, contentment, etc.” The only times I normally ever utter the word “glory” is in church when reading the Bible or singing hymns and even doing so I don’t often have a well-rounded definition of what I’m even saying. Recently I watched The Thin Red Line again and was struck by how Terrence Malick seems to grasp this notion that glory is something big and important to how we live. After watching the movie I re-read C.S. Lewis’ great essay “The Weight of Glory” and was struck by the similar emphases brought out by both Lewis and Malick when speaking of “glory”.

For Lewis, glory seems to have two main ideas that play a part in the Christian’s life. The first is, quite literally, having a good fame or report with God and the other is that there is an otherworldly sense of magnificence and splendor that permeates our everyday world. Knowing this, the Christian should seek to magnify it wherever it is found and work on creating it with his life. This glory is, in fact, all around us if we are willing to look for it. It’s in the sunset setting the clouds on fire, the innocence of a small child’s smile and the laughter of good friends. It’s everywhere, in God’s Creation, and shockingly it is even dispersed through sinful humanity at times.

Lewis says this in reference to glory and humanity, “When human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather the greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch…We are summoned to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendour which she fitfully reflects.” This glory shines through Nature and also shines through us everyday, even though we often fail to see it. There are certain people who manage to see the glory easier than others and Malick is one of these people.

Photo #11

Malick has an eye for glory in all his films, but it seems to be a special focus in The Thin Red Line. His other films (Badlands (72), Days of Heaven (78) and The New World (05)) show us such spectacles of beauty and grace that we can’t help but be jarred into noticing the glory. The Thin Red Line is no different, but instead of just showing us, Malick seems intent on drawing us into an actual conversation about this elusive “glory”. Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) often muses about glory fractured by war and how mankind always manages to mask his glory. In many ways he is the main character amidst a star-studded ensemble cast, which makes me believe that Witt’s struggles and thoughts about glory may be the most important of the myriad of points that Malick is seeking to make.

How’d we lose the good that was given to us? Let is slip away. Scattered it, careless. What’s keeping us from reaching out, touching the glory?“-Private Witt

Why does mankind seem to forfeit his glory so easily, even sometime denying it exists? Perhaps it’s because with an admission that all men have a spark of divine splendor in them it would force us to change how we act. It would change the way we look at other people and the world at large. Lewis says, “It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour…There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.” Malick tries to force us to see this, giving us glory and horror in his characters, often in the same frame. But he raises the same question: can we still see the glory?

TheThinRedLine-NewLife.jpg image by tomasutpen

Private Train (John Dee Smith) delivers one of the film’s most important lines near its conclusion, “One man looks at a dying bird and thinks there’s nothing but unanswered pain. That death’s got the final word, it’s laughing at him. Another man sees that same bird — and feels the glory — feels something smiling through it.” Malick illustrates the man who sees the glory through Witt and gives him opposition in the form of Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn). Witt sees the glory and Welsh doesn’t. Welsh has been beat down by the horrors of war and can no longer see the glory that shines through man every once in a while. It’s understandable, but clearly not the way life is best lived.

So the question now remains, how do we become people who see glory instead of death? How do we remind ourselves that there are no ordinary people?

All around us, everyday, there is glory to be seen. God’s Creation, despite its sin-damaged state, is still good. To see the world in this way may require a drastic mentality shift. It’s not easy, but if you look for the good and true, it is there to be found. Lewis and Malick know this and it is evident in their respective work. Nothing is ordinary and glory abounds all around us. Are we people who can see it?

Further Reading:

Brett McCracken’s insightful write-up of The Thin Red Line at The Search.

The Weight of Glory and The Hold Steady at Adventures in Living a Good Story.

Making a Joyful (and Beautiful) Noise: Future of Forestry

June 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

Why do so many Christians make bad art? Or more importantly, why do so many Christians make bad art and pass it off as good art?

If I knew I would be a much happier man, because then maybe we could work on creating good art. To be fair, there are plenty of Christians making great art, but they aren’t quite as numerous or prominent as those who top the Christian music charts or have their DVDs sold in Christian bookstores. This leaves the world at large plenty of opportunities to scoff at those artistic endeavors and ignore the Christians making genuinely creative and beautiful things. And quite honestly, there are a lot of Christians who ignore those among them who are making quality art. This should not be so.

Future of Forestry is one of those bands making beautiful music and they should be acknowledged as such. Formed from the remains of Something Like Silas, Future of Forestry is the brainchild of Eric Owyoung and their named is based on a C.S. Lewis poem of the same name. They have released one full-length album entitled Twilight and just released the last of the three EPs that make up the Travel series. Twilight found the band employing more of a straightforward U2-esque style, which has morphed into a more experimental, ethereal brand of rock on the Travel EPs. More on the music later, but what stands out immediately about Future of Forestry is that Owyoung’s lyrics are clearly worshipful and focused on Jesus, but manage to sidestep the many cliches associated with worship music. Contemplative, reflective and poetic his lyrics create an atmosphere of worship that doesn’t rely on repetition or over-stated declarations of praise, a refreshing change from most contemporary worship lyrics.

It’s so hard for me to find bands who combine intelligent, worshipful lyrics with good music, and it makes me wonder why no one plays Future of Forestry songs in their worship services. Are they too metaphorical, too reflective? Are they not safe enough?

Anyway, while Twilight is a very good album with some excellent tracks, the Travel EPs, especially the second one, are filled with moments that take my breath away. This Hour, on Travel I, throws so many instruments through your headphones it’s hard to keep track of them as they drop in and out of each ear. Someday, the closing track on Travel II, has such a sublime chorus of backing vocals it’s difficult not to get caught up in the grandeur of these combined with a majestic string arrangement. But it seems as if almost all of their music has this feel that there is something supernatural lurking just beyond the instruments and vocals. It is a kind of yearning for something bigger and better that can’t be found without a healthy dose of searching.

And that’s what Christian music should do. Give a sense of the divine that propels you to keep going deeper into the wonderful life that God has given you.

http://futureofforestry.com/ (You can listen to full tracks here and read lyrics)

http://www.youtube.com/user/FOFmovies

Arts & Faith Top 100

March 31, 2010 § 1 Comment

I’ve recently begun to read the blog of Image Journal, a quarterly journal which concerns itself with faith and art. Updated almost daily, it contains powerful personal anecdotes and insightful reviews into the relationship of faith to everyday life. It was there that I stumbled upon their selection of the top 100 spiritual films.

I highly encourage anyone interested in faith or the representation of in art to check this out. I have only seen 10 films on the list, something which I am beginning to remedy whenever I can. Most of the films are in another language than English and quite a few of them are in black and white, but they are all true art. There is no Transformers 2 or Avatar among them.

Each of the ten films I’ve seen on the list have made me think and have wowed me at times with their beauty. Here’s the list.

http://artsandfaith.com/t100/

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