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.

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.

To begin with a quote…

I’m grateful that Bach’s Christianity was realized in both his conscious and subconscious mind.  But being a practising Christian is not part of the job description, and sometimes God chooses most peculiar people to be vessels of genius.  My mother used to sigh because her beloved Wagner was such a nasty man.  And I was horrified to have some students tell me that a lot of people actively dislike Robert Frost.  How does one separate the art from the artist?

I don’t think one does, and this poses a problem.  How do we reconcile atheism, drunkenness, sexual immorality, with strong, beautiful poetry, angelic music, transfigured painting?  We human beings don’t, and that’s all there is to it.  Dostoeyvsky’s magnificent theology is not always compatible with his agonized life.  Mozart wrote one of his merriest and most joyful pieces while he was frantic over his dying mother.  Mendelssohn, who helped give Bach to the world, was a Jew.

It’s all more than I can cope with–or, rather, it’s more than my conscious mind can cope with.  Jung says that we are far more than the part of ourselves we can know about, and that one of the most crippling errors of twentieth-century culture has been our tendency to limit ourselves to our intellect… The right hemisphere of the brain controls the left side of the body and the intuition, we are told; and the left hemisphere of the brain controls the right side of the body and the intellect.  And we’re afraid of that left, intuitive side…

From that misunderstood left comes prayer and poetry and song, and these have a healing power we are losing touch with in this technocratic age…

Maybe the job of the artist is to see through all of this strangeness to what really is, and that takes a lot of courage, and a strong faith in the validity of the artistic vision even if there is not a conscious faith in God…

‘Our identity is hidden, even from ourselves…. the doctrine that we are made after the image of God proclaims that the human being is fundamentally a mystery, a free spirit.  The creative artist is one who carries within him the wound of transcendence.  He is the sign that human beings are more than they are.’

~ from Walking on Water, by Madeleine L’Engle (125-128) (internal quote from Journey into Christ, by Alan Jones)