Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Real History

October 8, 2016

People are always reinventing and re-envisioning history.  Sometimes they do so in ways that are challenging and stimulating, not attempts to deny actual history but to get us to think beyond the neat categories and definitions of history.  Other times, they seek to undermine what we believe to be true about history.  Artists participate in these processes as well, and when you throw religion into the mix, things get very heated and complicated very quickly.

So it was that in 1984 there was a great deal of controversy around a female crucifix.  Not Christ on the cross, but rather Christa, as the piece was named.  This was not one of many feminine Christs that were still definitively male, but a definitively female figure hanging on the cross.  The Episcopal bishop at the time ordered the crucifix removed from an Episcopal cathedral in New York City.  Now the figure is being re-displayed, with the defense that times have changed, and the assertion that “Surely we can have a woman on the cross.”

I wonder about it from the artistic standpoint.  I object to it from the religious standpoint.  In an era where the fundamentals of the Christian faith are being eroded or discarded, this seems like another attempt to reduce the death of Jesus of Nazareth to the equivalent of a Greek myth.  Why should it matter who is depicted on the cross if we don’t really believe there was a Jesus on the cross in the first place?  I don’t know if this is the artist’s intent or belief or not, but she should know that, like preaching, artists don’t get to control how their work impacts their audience.

As a historian, I don’t know what the value is of arbitrarily changing the gender of historical figures for artistic purposes.  And I think I would have far less problem with it if the work was being displayed in an art house rather than in a cathedral.  But to place it in a Christian worship environment, that seems deeply problematic, similar to a textbook replacing Hitler with a female rather than male identity.  The artistic impact can muddle the reality of what is supposed to be happening.  When we study history, we want to study facts.  When we worship, we want to worship the reality of the Son of God Incarnate as the man Jesus of Nazareth.

If American Christians were completely clear on the historicity of their faith, this might not be a big deal, although I would still think it inappropriate to be displayed in a church.  But given the great deal of misinformation and ignorance among American Christians, it would be nice to focus on reality and the fundamentals and save the artistic re-interpretations for another venue.

 

Immersive at a Distance

October 6, 2016

Thanks to Becky for a recent LA Times article covering a play set in a Lutheran congregation and actually playing in Lutheran churches.  I found another generally positive review in the LA Weekly as well.  At first blush it sounds a bit like a Garrison Keillor redux, but in reality it is apparently far more intimate.  The audience isn’t listening to a third-person narrative about what is happening, they become part of what is happening in a theatrical representation of  Lutheran worship services.  The play is being staged in Lutheran congregations around Los Angeles and Hollywood, further blurring the lines between reality and theater.

The premise is a young man who is filling in for his father as his father deals with a health crisis that extends.  It is a series of seven sermons addressing various issues particular to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) including economic hardships as well as the divisive debate about homosexuality in the church.  The play is produced by a Los Angeles-based theater group dedicated to providing exposure for local and emerging playwrights.  It doesn’t appear to be a specifically religious group, but a group committed to a diversity in their productions.

The theater-goers become the congregation, and actually begin with singing a hymn before the first sermon begins.  I think this is a fascinating concept, at least I think I do.  I suppose it depends a great deal on who the audience is.  If the audience is primarily members of these Lutheran congregations, this might be a very interesting form of therapy, a means of addressing and opening up conversations on topics quite relevant and important in the lives of those individuals and congregations.  If the audience is primarily non-church-going folks, then it is more of a curiosity to me.  They come to be immersed in an environment that is not their own, seeking a form of catharsis unrelated to their actual lives.  Intriguing.

Of course, another alternative would be to actually go to church, to actually be engaged and active in a congregation.  The issues addressed might be different depending on the denomination, but the sense of belonging and struggle and the reality of blessing and reconciliation in the midst of sinfulness and brokenness is far realer, far more concrete and immersive than any two-hour play.

I’m no artist by any stretch of the imagination, but it seems to me as if theater can provide the function of giving viewers/participants the illusion of experience.  We become part of another era or another situation for a period of time, experiencing in a condensed fashion what others have or must experience moment by moment.  Resolutions are reached quicker.  Emotional arcs are traversed more economically and without the messiness of time and the frustration of waiting.  We can feast on highlights and epiphanies rather than slog through valleys of irritation and sloughs of self-righteousness.

If you want to know what it’s like to be a Christian struggling to reconcile faith with current issues, go to Church.  Be a part of that community.  Learn it firsthand.  There is no need to settle for a substitute – no matter how sensitively crafted or executed.  Here’s one situation where you don’t have to remain an observer, but can truly be a real participant!

Uncovering Beauty

May 26, 2016

Four years ago almost I was blessed to travel with a group of parishioners to Israel.  Among the many amazing sites we visited was the town of Bethlehem, and the Church of the Nativity.

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Of course it’s an amazing place, and as old as it is, there is undoubtedly a constant stream of maintenance, upkeep, and rediscovery that goes on there.

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They continue to discover new things under the plaster of the walls, under the floors, literally everywhere.  This article details yet another discovery recently made- part of a series of angelic mosaics.  Beautiful!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Art Is Complicated

October 15, 2015

But some art is more complicated than other art.  Which is why sometimes it is helpful to get some insight into the artists thoughts.

And sometimes, it isn’t.

Switcheroo

July 14, 2015

Today was a field trip from my studies.  My professors led the group on a visit to three nearby towns, remarkable for either their artistic treasures or general historical quaintness.  The first stop was Colmar to see this work of art by Mathias Grunewald – the Isenheim Altarpiece:

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My profs consider this to be the single greatest depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus.  Ever.  And it is impressive, to be sure.  But what struck me in particular was the youthfulness of the disciple John.  He’s the young man to the left of the cross holding Jesus’ swooning mother, Mary.  Immediately what sprang to mind were Jesus’ words from the cross recorded by John himself in John 19:26-27.

Always before when I heard Jesus’ words to his mother and John, I presumed that John was going to be caring for Mary.  Frankly, verse 27 really leads one to suspect that this is the case.  But of course that creates a host of questions.  Why weren’t Jesus’ brothers taking care of Mary?  Where is Joseph, Jesus’ dad in all of this?  How is it that John can take Mary into his home?  Does he have a home?  Where?  What about his dad, Zebedee?  Lots o’ questions, but my assumption has always been that regardless of the questions, this must have been what happened.

Seeing the painting made me remember and realize again how young John must be at the crucifixion.  He lives almost to the end of the first century.  He might have been a young man indeed – perhaps even a boy on the threshold of manhood.  Maybe he was 13 or 14 when Jesus died.  Maybe this is why he is described as the beloved disciple – he was younger than the rest of the disciples and there was perhaps a paternal love from Jesus towards John.

And if all this were true, what if Jesus’ words to Mary and John were intended to have the opposite effect – that Mary was to look after John.  Of course, it makes the rest of verse 27 curious, but that’s no harder a question than the variety of questions raised by interpreting Jesus’ words the other way round.

I might be off completely in my musings, but it was amazing, that sudden realization that my assumptions about things had informed my interpretation of the text, and that other interpretations might be possible.  I’ll chalk that up to the power of art, and the usefulness of a random field trip now and then!

Pieces of History

July 5, 2015

Today we walked around in the 2nd or 3rd tallest church in Europe – the Minster in Ulm.  As with many churches and cathedrals in Europe, it’s amazing.  In our age of utilitarianism, where everything is measured for return on investment, it’s hard to comprehend the mindset that set out to create an architecture of glory.  Glory, to be sure, of the men and women who financed it and designed it and lived and died to build it, but also the glory of God.  You walk inside and your eyes are drawn inexorably upwards into the heavens, to contemplation of the vastness of God who dwarfs even such magnificent spaces.

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What was more amazing to me though, were the bits and pieces.  Those without names and dates, or with names and dates too disfigured by the passing of time and the elements to read.  Simple paintings and carvings that have graced the church for centuries, and yet bear no information and details.  Nothing noted about the creator or the era.  Information that undoubtedly has been lost, compared to the meticulous notations of the wealthy individuals and families who paid for the construction of this massive building (rumored to have been designed to hold up to 22,000 people – the population of Ulm 700 years ago or so – in the event of an attack or other emergency).

Unfinished scrawlings and drawings like this one (where only the face of the person on the far right is completed – perhaps representing the artist himself).

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Or I wonder about the churl who had this carved face added to the front of their choir seat.  Perhaps not a fan of the priest/pastor’s sermon?

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Bits and pieces of history that far outstrip our entire country’s history lie unattended in the corners of the church or on parts of the wall not adorned by commissioned art.

It’s a fascinating reminder that as much as we all like to think that we are the main characters of our lives, and that our lives are the main point of God’s story, this is hardly the case.  Most of us will disappear under the waters of death without leaving much of a ripple at all.  Very few of us will leave ripples that outlive the lives of those who knew us directly.  The famous and the infamous live on, inscriptions about their successes and failures emblazoned into history texts and Wikipedia for future generations to ignore.  Our lives are not noted to much extent, yet they contribute to the overall glory of God in his plan and his story – a story not about our grandeur but his grace.  We may not top the spires of the towers, we may not be great statuary lining the sides of the nave, we may not be lavishly ornamented coats of arms and other curiosities.  But our lives are contained there just as well.  Without fanfare for the time being.

Yet when we resurface – with the faithful peasants and artists and burghers who built and beautified that church – what fascinating conversations we’ll be able to have with one another.  What surprises when we find out that somebody else was musing on our life’s work, unaware of who we were or when we lived or what we liked to eat for breakfast.  What joy to be able to join hands in praise of God, in glorification of God whose story so far exceeds our feeble attempts at comic strip writing that we don’t even realize that even our own scrawls are in ways we can’t understand his scrawls, in us and through us, and actually us, period.

Truly, to God be the glory, great things He hath done and will do!

Meanwhile, on the Internet…

February 1, 2014

I don’t understand this.  But if I could figure out how to get paid $9000/month to do it, I don’t think I would feel the need to understand.  

On the other hand, this is a cool idea, and were I famous enough to warrant it, I’d definitely participate.  In some respects it’s similar to the television archive that I blogged about a while back.  Posterity is a cool thing to preserve things for. 

When Facebook Isn’t Enough

October 23, 2013

Facebook has made reconnecting with long lost friends, acquaintances, exes, etc. all the rage.  But sometimes it isn’t enough.  What do you do in that case, particularly if you don’t know the names of the people you’re looking for?

If you’re Ringo Starr, you just start asking around, and word spreads.  Ringo Starr is trying to identify five (or six) young fans in a 50-year old photo he snapped.  If you happen to be one of these people, you may want to contact Ringo.  
Try friending him on Facebook!

Common Indecency

August 28, 2013
** Warning!  The links embedded in this article mostly lead to articles containing excerpts from a literary work.  These excerpts are sexually graphic and explicit in nature.  If you do not wish to view this material, do not click on the links! **

Thanks to Becky for sending me a link to this blog post regarding part of the new national academic standards being rolled out, known colloquially as the Common Core (this link is safe – no explicit content here).   The Common Core is required for any school wishing to receive Federal educational aid.  This news story summarizes some basic information about the Common Core.  

There is growing concern (careful, graphic content there!) because some of the literature approved for use in junior and senior level literature courses includes graphic sexual content.  Specifically, the book The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.  I have not read this book.  Based on the excerpts in the blog post above, I don’t have a desire to, either.  
Others support teaching this book in class.  They assert that the controversial nature of the book is what makes it ideal material.  They argue that kids need to be more challenged in their reading, and books like this accomplish that goal.
I’ll agree that a book of this nature probably fits the bill for controversial and challenging reading.  The author’s own stated intent of not giving value judgments on the descriptions of rape and pedophilia is intentional, so that the reader empathizes with the characters more, appreciating widely divergent points of view.  
Sexual material in high school classrooms is nothing new.  I well remember the controversy over showing the 9th grade advanced literature class Zeffirelli’s film presentation of Romeo and Juliet, because it included some brief bits of nudity.  My parents gave their permission.  I was excited to be introduced to mature material, and yes, the naughty bits were a topic of conversation for a few days.
But the point of the sexuality in the play and in the movie was decidedly secondary to the overall literary themes.  I was not being asked to empathize with pathological behavior.  Neither the play or the movie were graphic, describing the physicality of the acts.  Of the many meaty topics that could be discussed in the play (the nature of parent/child relationships, the power of hate, the power of love, the role of religion in the family or even civic sphere, the impetuousness of youth, differences in cultural/historic treatments of love and marriage, etc.), sexuality isn’t one of them.  The point is not to make me think about sex (something that high school students don’t have a problem, by and large, receiving plenty of stimulus from other quarters, as the recent Miley Cyrus/MTV Video Music Awards debacle demonstrates.  No, I’m not going to provide you with a link to that).  
Arguing that The Bluest Eye is simply a literary work like any other in a culture in the throes of major shifts in moral understandings is hogwash.  I will trust that it provides other challenging topics of discussion.  But for the high schoolers (if not their teachers), the sexual content is likely going to predominate.  
I seem to recall reading more than a few books that are challenging and engaging without being sexually explicit.  I continue to be amazed that in public schools, which in the not-so-distant past were devoid of sexual material of any kind, sexuality is now the conversation topic not just between students but in the curriculum and extra-curricular activities.  Homosexuality related campus groups are more and more the norm.  I can’t imagine a principal ever approving a club supporting heterosexual individuals.  Can you imagine what that might have been like?  
Youth are steeped in sexual images, lyrics, and expectations from a shockingly early age.  This is not accidental, it is intentional.  To continue to attempt that extending this assault into the curriculum of the classroom is actually good for them intellectually is ridiculous and dishonest.  Do you want to challenge adolescents in their reading comprehension?  Assign them to read Camus.  Assign them to read Shakespeare.  Have them read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for a fascinating exploration of the roles and relationships and responsibilities between creator and created.  What about reading philosophers?  What about reading any number of hundreds of great books that can challenge students in their vocabulary and composition analysis and reading comprehension without focusing on aberrant sexual practices and experiences?  
Isn’t it reasonable for us all to agree that our kids should receive the best education possible, and that we can do this without pushing yet more sexually-charged and explicit material at them?  I can pretty much guarantee that no teacher is going to want to facilitate a conversation on the sexual parts of the book to begin with.  Those sections can’t even be read in the classroom – they are mandated to be read only at home!  So the sexual material and the ramifications isn’t even going to be dealt with.  So why insist on having it there in the first place?
Once again, under the guise of education, our children are going to suffer so that the agendas of a tiny minority of people can be advanced.  I continue to find this not only intellectually dishonest, but morally reprehensible.  

Most Equal

March 27, 2013

If you’re on Facebook, you may be seeing red.  This red:

As the Supreme Court begins to examine the push for a redefinition of marriage, many who support redefinition are posting this.  The idea is that what is desired is equality.  That homosexuals should have the exact same definition of marriage as heterosexuals, and that anything else is discrimination.
I prefer seeing this red:
Thanks to Gary for posting this on Facebook yesterday – not sure if he originated it or not.
The assertion here is the logical consequence of redefining marriage not around what it does, but rather around the arbitrary wishes of individuals.  If the logic is that marriage is defined only by providing maximum equality, then this same logic (if successful now) will be utilized – in relatively short order I predict to redefine marriage not only along the lines of gender but along the lines of numerics.  Two guys and a girl have the same right to be treated equally in the definition of marriage as one guy and a girl.  Two girls and a guy have the same right as one girl and a guy.
I’ve written about the importance of this issue before.  I am stunned by what I will charitably describe as the complete naivete of those who demand the redefinition of marriage while insisting that it will not change anything (other than allowing same sex marriages).  I trust that these same folks will be equally vigorous in their support of every other redefinition of marriage that must necessarily follow (logically, if not legally) from their support of the effort to redefine marriage to include same sex marriages.  
I don’t have much hope that marriage will escape legal redefinition.  If not this week, then eventually.  I just wish that people were more willing to engage in actually talking about the issue intelligently rather than relying on oversimplified graphics to settle the discussion.  (For the record, I would say the exact same thing about most Christian symbols that people stick on the bumpers of their cars.)