A CHRISTIAN APPRECIATION OF ART

My latest article at Tabletalk:

Andrew Wyeth, one of America’s most renowned realist painters of the twentieth century, had an uncanny ability to capture the solemn nature of the rural American life with painstakingly controlled brushstrokes and a muted color palette. One of Wyeth’s most intriguing and iconic paintings is titled Christina’s World (1948). The central focus of the work is a brunette female lying in a field with her left hand struggling toward her far-off farmhouse. The figure in the painting is modeled after Wyeth’s neighbor, Anna Olson. Olson suffered from a degenerative muscular disorder that limited her to crawling around her house and family land.

There is nothing loud or wildly fantastic about the subject matter of Christina’s World. The power of the painting is held in what might be called the familiar whisper of beauty, a sense of the deep struggle in longing for home. It is a whisper that we cannot ignore. Like Christina’s World, beautiful art is never viewed with indifference. As philosopher Roger Scruton has noted, “Beauty demands to be noticed; it speaks directly to us like the voice of an intimate friend.” There is a sense in which all good art gives a certain voice to beauty. As C.S. Lewis reminds us in The Weight of Glory, beauty and art point beyond themselves. Beauty comes through as “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

Read the rest of the article here.

BEAUTY DEMANDS TO BE NOTICED

My latest post at The Gospel Coalition is titled “In Christian Theology, Beauty Demands to Be Noticed“.

In a world without beauty, Balthasar declares, “What remains is . . . a mere lump of existence.” God did not have to create so many things in our world to be beautiful, but he did.

If beauty demands to be noticed, let us take note. If there’s something intrinsic in humanity that’s drawn to beauty, let it draw us in. Both the world and the Word call us to behold the sovereign Creator God.

As we see in the Word, all the beauty of this world points beyond itself to the breathtaking beauty of God himself. Beauty is a powerful signpost that calls out to all: “Look and see. The one true God is good.”

To read the entire article, click here.

“How Should Christians Engage in Culture?” with Andy Crouch

Andy Crouch talks about how Christians need a better understanding of scripture in order to engage culture well. This video is from Ministry Grid.

Jesus is the True and Better…

This video was produced by Dan Stevers, and is a beautiful visual rendition of Tim Keller’s “True and Better” sermon delivered at The Gospel Coalition in 2007. The full text from the video can be found here.

Thoughts on Christian Rap

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/80291749]

What’s Beef?

If you follow the Christian blog world, you’ll know that a recent panel of pastors George Bush’ed the button on the Christian rap discussion. By the response of some bloggers you’d think that Joel Beeke put a picture of Lacrae in a tutu on a Summer Jam screen. Others act like they’ve been appointed to bring rap to justice like some kind of the cultural five-O.

But let’s be clear, this isn’t the Big and Pac feud of the reformed evangelical world. The discussion that sparked this debate was incited by a group of men who have little familiarity with the story and function of rap as a legitimate genre of music. When a panelist hesitantly and almost apologetically (sheepishly, I might add) admits to having Toby Mac on his iPod, something isn’t right. I imagine that the underwhelming arguments of the panel will not cause too much ruckus in the Christian rap world. One might wonder why we haven’t ignored it all together.

Born and Raised in the Streets

Rap, just as its musical predecessors, was created as a form to serve a specific function. Since its birth in the 1970’s, rap has undergone a transformation in terms of its medium and primary message. However, rap as a musical form has always served to promote a civil function. Rap was born and raised to give a voice for the urban sentiment of a people who didn’t buy into or experience the suburban American ideal. For those that didn’t fit the American suburban mold, like drops of oil suspended in a glass of water, they coalesced, rap becoming the emulsifier that not only promoted a sense of community amongst all who rallied around this new form of self-expression, but also showcased their legitimate talent, abilities, and potential to an outside world content to ignore and avoid what they couldn’t understand. And by implication, rap artists have helped give a poetic and emotionally charged voice to a whole class of American citizenry. Art always imitates life. And rap serves as the intersection where rhythm is life and life is rhythm.

Rap music gives a window to the soul of American culture. Rap music also speaks in the language of many in American culture. As thoughtful Christians we should take notice of the themes and messages that resonate with millions of Americans – let me add, Americans from every ethnicity and socioeconomic background. This is part of our missionary call. It is because of the resonate power of rap that many Adidas have walked through concert doors and roamed over previously uninhabited concert floors. From a missional standpoint, the medium of rap music has served as another vehicle for the gospel message.

For Every Dark Night, There’s A Brighter Day

We can either retreat to our elitist Christian bubbles and take unintelligent shots from within or sift through Niebuhr’s categories (or Carson’s expanded categories) and think reflectively about Christ and culture. I’ll go with Niebuhr and Carson.

At the very least, I write this blog with more authority than the men on the panel. For a large period of my life I listened to secular rap and hip-hop music. So, my authority comes from actually knowing what rap music is. There is a dark side to this knowledge. The mnemonic power of rap has lodged rap lyrics deep into my mind. Still today, you can lay down an instrumental track from countless rap artists, and I can regrettably recall their Godless and often God cursing lyrics.

From experience I can tell you that most of non-Christian secular rap is full of vulgar and vain vernacular – a stark vision of depraved hearts. Not only do their lyrics leave one wondering if these rappers have been cursed with a curse to just curse, but the main message they’ve proclaimed is primarily about coming from the bottom of the bottom to the top of the top. For them, their justification in life is that they’ve made the change from a common thief to up close and personal with Robin Leach. Understandably, many onlookers wonder if the picture of the good life in secular rap is that of the artist formally known as Snoop Dog, laid back, with his mind on his money and his money on his mind. Even worse, the degradation of women in many secular rap songs reimage them as objects of sexual triumph.

In this ego-centric environment it’s understandable that rappers perpetually compete in a lyrical battle of king of the mountain. Sadly, they hypothetically (and sometimes literally) kill one another to grab everything the capitalist driven media promises can fill the deep voids in their lives. If anything, I can truly understand the hearts of these lost and hurting artists. They bleed on those albums. The reason so many people are drawn to their rap is that they too, have been cut in the same places. However, not all rap is the death rattle in the throat of a dying culture. Judging from the broad generalities made by the panelists, they seemed to make no distinction between secular and solid Christian rap.

What More Can I Say?

We cannot, as the panelists’ desire, snuff out rap music all together. While I have engaged in the ritual of throwing many of these secular albums in the Christian summer camp fire, I am not yet ready to pour out a bottle in memory of the entire genre. Rap music has its place. Sadly, some Christian rap functions like drug store cologne – kitschy mimesis of depraved and self-centered secular rap. However, not all rap is about drawing attention to the rapper. There are legitimately talented and God honoring Christian rap artists who use their distinctive voice to proclaim Christ. These brothers are not “disobedient cowards who have caved into the world” – as one panelist said.

So I raise my glass to the gospel proclaiming, doctrinally solid, and biblically literate rap artists that serve the church. Let the trunks rattle. And let the 16 bars point to the one true God of the universe. As for the medium and the message, Christ-exalting Christian rap is a breath of life in a culturally contextualized voice. I rejoice that Christian rap adds to our spiritual expression as the people of God.

For more, read Dr. Moore.

Clear Winter Nights by Trevin Wax

A few weeks ago Trevin Wax walked into my office and handed me an advanced copy of his first fiction book Clear Winter Nights. I have read Trevin’s blog for years. I’ve also read his previous non-fiction works Holy Subversion and Counterfeit Gospels. Trevin is a gifted writer and thoughtful theologian. As he walked out of my office that day I was excited for him, not only because he’s my friend, but also because of what this book means to him. Trevin has been calling for artistic portrayals of truth for a while now. In several of his blog posts he has expressed concern about conservative Christians picking apart works of art without offering something better. This concern seems to be one of the driving forces behind Clear Winter Nights. For someone who has done well in the non-fiction market, writing fiction is a risky move.

Clear-Winter-Nights_1a-716x1024Offering a work of fiction to the public puts an author in new territory beyond a change of literary genre. In non-fiction a writer has the privilege of shoring up his or her arguments with evidence, his or her points with the thoughts of other thinkers. Fiction pushes an author into a much more vulnerable position. Trevin has not only personally crafted this entire story, but also intimately created each character, and shaped their thoughts and actions. A fiction novel is a work of art. And because it is a work of art the writer becomes susceptible to criticism on many levels. In my opinion this makes Clear Winter Nights Trevin’s most personal venture yet.

I am not a literary critic. Nor, do I read fiction on a level that allows me to be conversant with it as an art form in the strictest sense. I tend to read theological, sociological, and philosophical works. On my honeymoon I read C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man while enjoying the breathtaking beaches of the Riviera Maya. On our trip to finalize our adoption in Ethiopia I read Graeme Goldsworthy’s Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics while relaxing in the cool of the night. My library is made up of ninety five percent non-fiction. However, I would like to offer my thoughts on Clear Winter Nights, for whatever it’s worth.

First, I was delighted by Trevin’s ability to render the context of each scene in such a way that it added to the beauty of the narrative without slipping into the melodramatic. In each chapter Trevin was able to paint the surroundings in such a way that I was transported into the ethos of the moment without losing a sense of the narrative trajectory. The reader can not only visualize the setting, but also see the physical posture of each character at almost every turn in the movement of the story. In my opinion, this only strengthens to the emotive force of the story line. For someone like me, who dwells in abstract literature, this is meaningful because it adorns the truth and adds to the beauty of the narrative.

Second, Trevin was able to communicate thoughtful biblical truth using a storyline that was captivating, and did so with memorable characters. Clear Winter Nights includes both fiction elements and non-fiction elements, namely, sustained theological discussion and logical reasoning. However, the story does not get weighed down by the theological elements. Trevin transported theology through story exceptionally well. At the right moments and in the right way, the discussion would lift so that I, as the reader, would remain grounded in the narrative. The beauty of narrative is that truth delivered from specific characters adds contextual force, which leaves a more lasting mark on the reader.

Finally, this book will resonate with many readers because of the content of the discussion between the characters. Many readers will sympathize with, and find themselves reflected in the thoughts and actions of each character. One of the main characters of Clear Winter Nights is a young and intellectually ambitious Christian dealing with disillusionment and doubt. The story centers on this young Christian spending a weekend with an elderly retired pastor, who is not only wise but broken and full of grace. During the course of the weekend these two men discuss some of the most pressing subjects of life and faith, and it is clear that no subject is off limits. As I followed every interaction, every response, and every question in the conversation I was not only entertained but educated. In Clear Winter Nights you are taken on a journey through philosophical and thoughtful discussions on the biggest dilemmas of faith. The characters discuss the equality and inequality of world religions, the nature of Christian discipleship, and the reality of sin, pain, and suffering. Through engaging dialogue Trevin aptly explores the relevance of solid biblical truth in an unstable world.

A few years ago I was encouraged by one of my closest friends Zach Hawkins to take an occasional break from academic reading to enjoy fiction. I am glad I did. I am also thankful for Trevin’s new book. I pray that many more volumes will be published in this line of literature. If you are looking to read a short and reflective fiction work, I commend Clear Winter Nights to you. I read it in a few sittings. And each time, it was hard for me to put it down.

The Beauty, Truth, and Goodness of The Cross

Evangelical Christians prize truth and goodness. It seems like we write and talk about what is true and good often. We should. But, what ever happened to beauty? For the ancient philosophers and theologians beauty was always considered in relation to truth and goodness. If something was true, it was also good and beautiful. For something to be good, it also had to be beautiful and true.

The CrossFor many of our theological forefathers, compartmentalizing these great transcendental realities would deconstruct the majesty of the whole. Yet we rarely talk about beauty anymore. For us, beauty is no longer in concert with truth and goodness. So its always refreshing when I find a theologian who explores all three.

Drawing from the writing of Hans Urs von Balthasar, specifically The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetic, theologian Dr. Stephen Garrett makes a wonderful observation relating the transcendental realities of beauty, truth, and goodness to the work of Jesus Christ and the cross.

“[Beauty] seen through the One who is beauty, truth, and goodness, reveals an intertwined and interpenetrating triad that should not be compartmentalized.  To separate beauty, truth, and goodness results in distortion and misunderstanding not only of the triad but also of Christ himself. 

  • To see the act of Christ on the cross as merely beautiful is to turn towards sentimentality. 
  • To see the act of Christ on the cross as merely good is to understand Christ as a good moral example incapable of transforming humanity. 
  • To see the act of Christ on the cross as merely true is to reduce Christ to a brute unattractive historical fact that has no relevance for our lives. 

To keep beauty, truth, and goodness together however lifts up Christ’s act of love on the cross in order to draw humanity to himself so that they may live a virtuous life full of meaning.  Beauty understood then in concert with truth and goodness works to glorify and make God known yet when separated from them disparages Christian worship, wisdom, and witness.”

According to Garrett, the reasons for retaining an interconnected relationship between beauty, truth, and goodness are significant. The dangers of separating them are massive.