Making Culture in a Small Town Storefront (Daniel Bowman, Christianity Today)

If “architecture is frozen music,” as Goethe said, then beautiful architecture left for dead is doubly frozen. What if we can unfreeze it? Maybe, somehow, we can reclaim one of these buildings, rescue the power of its design and history and integrity, reshape it so it can, eventually, re-shape us…

I became well-steeped in the ideas of the book [Culture Making, Andy Crouch] and began to believe them: I wanted not just to critique or consume culture but rather to make culture. I committed to applying those principles to my writing. I focused not on lazy online criticism of others’ published work, or incessant consumption of books and ideas, but rather on carefully building my own poems and narratives, improving my craft in ways that may not be obvious according to standard measures of success.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

But when I came to Indiana, I saw clearly the need to make culture in my town. I’d never stayed anywhere long enough to try it. Seeing those storefronts in Hartford City made me wonder if this was the time. To put theory into practice where I live would take imagination, hope, and hard work. And of course, I couldn’t do it alone…

In making the Arts Center, we [a group of volunteers] would add tangibly to the stock of reality available to the citizens of Hartford City, Indiana, and the surrounding area. We would bring some poetry to town…

In the coming days [after the Newtown, CT tragedy], many would debate gun control, increased security, and mental-health-care awareness. But I couldn’t help thinking that this work was, for me, the most appropriate reaction to the tragedy in Newtown. I saw the Arts Center with a new urgency: not just as a renovated old storefront, but as a place where people of any age could come and create, make culture—and make friends—in a world that needed more than ever these safe spaces. It would be one strategy against isolation and anger, a place made for the appropriate expression of those emotions, a place that might finally have the power to, as Alain de Botton says, “rebalance our misshapen natures.”

An Artist in the Dark | Comment Magazine | Cardus

An article concerning spiritual darkness and its effects on the creativity of artists: some create many of their best works in dark times; others cannot create at all. Author Sørina Higgins ends the article with this glimmer of hope:

Darkness is not the end of the story. Perhaps God is making art of us when we cannot make art: St. John wrote that “It is just as if some painter were painting or dyeing a face; if the sitter were to move because he desired to do something, he would prevent the painter from accomplishing anything.” Darkness and desolation are often only identifiable in retrospect, after they have let go their grip. It is then that the curse becomes a blessing and the negation becomes a gift.

Beauty in an Ugly Time | Books and Culture

Beauty in an Ugly Time | Books and Culture

An article by David Lyle Jeffrey addressing the deeply embedded preoccupation with human suffering prevalent in modernist art. He provides an analysis of Rouault and Chagall, each an example of an artist engaged with the horrifying reality of suffering and the redemptive reality of God’s love for us and his offer of life to us.

Chagall’s prophetic art is thus a splendid complement to the confessional work of Rouault. Rouault invites us to give up our masks, to accept the identification that Christ’s suffering affords as the “true image” of God’s love for us. Chagall’s work encourages us to choose life, and to nourish ourselves deeply, whether by day or by night, in the Word of the One who bade us to live in the joy of his giving. Each series is striking; when seen together we know how joy is an answer to sorrow, and beauty is made all the more urgent a choice when so much ugliness abounds.

art | redemption | hope

Check out this brief post on the Culture Making blog:

Good art in dark times | Culture Making.

In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.

This seems to support the thought that art should be redemptive, having “as dark a worldview as it wish[es]” but not forgoing hope in what God is doing and will do with and in humanity.  In spite of this fallen world, the current uncertainty and often apparently prevailing darkness, God is in the process of redeeming his people and the whole of creation.  Perhaps art should lift up not just what is human, but what is godly and therefore the hope of humanity, its potential – but this might just be that which appears “magical” and is certainly that which lives and glows.  After all, Christ is the light of the World, and his light shines through us as vessels.  There is great richness left in us because God has not abandoned us.  So let’s not give up hope.

(cf. Philip Ryken, Calvin Seerveld, and Jeremy Begbie)

The Artist’s Role

As I was working on my reading for my history seminar on the music of East-Central Europe in the 20th century, I came across the following quote in the context of the influence of Eastern Orthodox spirituality on Arvo Pärt:

It is not enough for art simply to register the horror or re-enact the details of our fall.  In our aesthetic imagination we have become like wounded beings crawling among the remains of our broken civilization–which Ezra Pound early in the [20th] century described as ‘botched’–clutching perhaps a single token of beauty, a line or two of poetry, a Bach prelude, a white canvas, which must now symbolize everything…

Like an ancient monastic order, we carry within us the seeds of renewal–the grain of hope–which we plant again and again after each fresh disaster, digging ever deeper into the past to re-establish only what is essential, that which alone can endure across time.  In such times (and therefore at all times) the role of the artist is the preservation of spiritual values, a role which demands exploration and sacrifice, quite as much as conservation. ~ Paul Hillier, Arvo Pärt, OUP: 1997

In the context of the horrors of the 20th and 21st centuries and the sometimes debilitating individualism of ‘post-modern’ culture, such a statement seems to reflect both the potentially dangerous preoccupations of contemporary art and music as well as the potentially healing power of hope if it were expressed among the ruins of our fallen state.   Perhaps Begbie’s and Seerveld’s call to incorporate redemption into artistic expression might be a more explicitly Christian call of this sort to spiritual responsibility in the arts.  In any case, these ideas are worth pondering, and to that end, any comments are welcome.

A preliminary defense

I remember a conversation a few years ago with a professor at Houghton in which I explained my struggle to reconcile my efforts in my faith and in my musical development, which I treated as two separate endeavors.   After a moment, he responded that he would pray that I would discover how the two can merge into one, unified trajectory.  At the time, I remember feeling frustrated.  I knew in a vague way that my study of music could glorify God, but I wasn’t aiming to be a worship leader and I struggled to understand how hours in the practice room – a solitary affair – could actually be as important as they felt to me.  However, through that conversation originated the pursuit of a theology of music that has led to this blog, a theology which draws a great deal from the doctrines of creation and salvation.

As Scripture opens, we are introduced to God as the Creator, expressing his creativity and passion in the creation of a remarkable world.  The culmination of this lavish, poetic process is the creation of humans:

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

We –all humanity – bear the image of God.  It has been tainted and broken by sin, but that image remains stamped on us.  And, arguably, one of the most distinctive ways in which we can recognize the image of God is in our creativity.  According to Philip Ryken, God’s calling and gifting of artists reveals the deep truth that God “himself is the supreme Artist” (Art for God’s Sake, 22).  Ryken further legitimizes this claim by specifically referring to God’s calling and gifting of the artists Bazalel and Oholiab, the artists in charge of the craftsmanship of the tabernacle, as well as his calling of Jubal and line of Levitical musicians (AGS, 18, 25).  These artists were skilled and intelligent, gifted by God, as well as willing to answer the call.

Music is also part of the cosmic order of things.  While certain aspects of it are clearly shaped by human culture, it also operates on its own plane, in the realm of sound and its interaction with the human body.  Jeremy Begbie states it well:

Since music is something made by humans, it will show the imprint of particular people, social groups, cultures, and their interests.  But at the same time, because it is made from given sound-producing materials and sounds and by people who share common physical features and together live in a temporally constituted world, it is not surprising if we find extremely pervasive patterns and procedures in most musics of the world.  In short, music seems to be a matter of both nature and nurture, and in gaining a Christian perspective on music, much depends on holding both of these perspectives together.  What is at stake theologically here is a full-blooded doctrine of creation that recognizes our embeddedness in a given, common physical environment. (Resounding Truth, 49)

In light of this understanding of music, the “sacred v. secular” dichotomy makes little sense, for “so-called secular music is an exploration of the world that God has made” (Ryken, AGS, 34).  Music has its own integrity within the sonic order at large and the patterned realm of musical sound, and should “flourish in all the fullness of [its] artistic potential, so that we may discover the inherent possibilities of creation and thereby come to a deeper knowledge of our Creator” (Ryken, AGS, 35).

Music has many functions, which have diversified to an unprecedented amount in the last century (see Begbie, RT, Introduction and Chapter 1).  One of its greatest strengths is its ability to express that which is inexpressible or inadequately expressible in words.  Music has great power to act on our hearts and emotions, as well as on our minds and even bodies… for which reason it has been linked with the spiritual, religious, and moral from the time of the ancient Greeks until the present.  This is not without its dangers, but I believe it is also dangerous to attempt to do away with the less ‘rational’ aspects of our humanity.  We could learn a great deal from Bach’s theological outlook, which “is hospitable to both music and word, allowing both to make their contribution, and often together” (Begbie, RT, 138, italics mine).   In addition, “Christian art is redemptive, and this is its highest purpose” (Ryken, AGS, 41).  Thus, the Christian musician expresses truths about the reality of the world, truths that are not solely bound up in words, truths that express both the ugliness and the beauteous hope of redemption.

Ultimately, the practice and study of music must be to the glory of God, but, to draw on Begbie yet again, “it is just because we are oriented to this particular God who desires things and people to flourish in their own integrity that we will long to give ‘room’ to the activities of making and hearing music… it is only as we are reconciled by the Spirit to this God … that we will be able to honor the integrity of music properly” (RT, 23).  Thus, the pursuit of music in its integrity may be a valuable expression of an important aspect of God and his creation, glorifying his creativity and lavish love for us… and for the Christian musician, it must be.

Purpose & Mission

The purpose of this blog is to foster and facilitate dialogue about the integration of the Christian faith with the study and practice of music, specifically among young Christian music students and professionals – my peers.  While this aim relates to the use of music in worship, this dialogue is meant to encompass a much broader understanding of the relationship between theology and doxology on the one hand and music in its variegated use and practice throughout Western (especially American) culture, along with the arts in general.

It is unfortunately the case that many young Christian musicians view their musical development as one branch of their lives and their spiritual development as a separate branch, sustaining only a vague notion of how the two might connect.  This ambiguity often finds little clarification within the church, in part because many churches are suspicious of the arts and music, especially as vocational callings.  The dialogue about music in the church is often limited to the use of music in worship services, an area that deserves attention, albeit less divisive attention, but this hardly addresses the problems facing the aspiring Christian musician.

Recently, some theologians within the church have responded with deep insight to this problem, which faces the arts in general (see the Resources page).  It is the mission of this blog to bring this conversation to young Christian musicians, in order that we may equip ourselves with a practical theology of music and the arts, a theology that may perhaps be introduced and summarized by a quote from Philip Ryken:

As Christians, we should lead the way in reclaiming the arts and restoring them to their true purpose.  We are living in a fallen and broken world; yet for all its ugliness, this world was made by God and will be saved by his grace.  Therefore, we should devote our skill to making art for the glory of God, and for the sake of his Son – our beautiful Savior, Jesus Christ.

~ Art for God’s Sake, 58