Artful Worship

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee. Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty, God in three persons, blessed Trinity.

Hymn as Art

It's amazing that that's a hymn. It's wonderful, isn't it? Even as someone who struggles daily with what I believe, with what I want to be true and what I want to know, it's easy to see the beauty there. It's a poem, it's got a beautiful melody that I would sing to you if you were here, it's a theology lesson; in short, it's a hymn. That's what hymns are supposed to do. All that stuff I just said. It's a huge task, and lots of "hymns" fall short. So many fall short, they started calling them "praise and worship" songs to skirt the criteria.

At this very moment, I'm listening to Sufjan Stevens' version of "Holy, Holy, Holy." When I listen to this (which is often), I think "why isn't this what Christianity sounds like?" It sounds like morning, like a new dawn, like a breeze, like life. It sounds like he gets the hymn, actually. We in the Christian tradition are blessed with some amazing pieces of worship art, and yet what grabs the spotlight arcs evermore toward the commercial and the bland. This is the unescapable consequence of the Protest Reformation. Don't get me wrong, Luther had some good points. But if you want to see how tasteless and artless and uninspiring Christianity can be, walk into one of a million Protestant churches in America. Maybe the picture of Jesus will be interesting. Like, maybe he won't be white.

I realize that, so far, I've been picking out a smaller piece of worship, the music, to make a larger point. Though let me point out that contemporary worship isn't the only perpetrator; old churches that sing old hymns can be just as bad. So the issue here isn't that "the old hymns are the good hymns." It's about good art versus bad art. It's about which art moves us into an experience with the divine, and the other kind which is about feeling good. And just because a church practices high liturgy doesn't mean they've got their finger on the pulse, either. When the liturgy and the atmosphere and the worship art, in all its forms, move us to an encounter with Being, that's when things are moving as they should. That's when the art is doing its job. Not only is it beautiful unto itself, but it's moving outward and shaping us. It's giving us a glimpse of grace and divinity. It's teaching us something. Can a contemporary song do this? Of course it can. But I haven't heard one yet up to the task. Maybe that's me just being picky. But if we place value on the space in which we worship and all that we hear and see in that space, I think it's to our benefit to make sure that the entire worship experience is examined. American Protestantism (and it's the American kind I speak of because that's where my experience lies) pushed off so heavily from symbol and art in its desire to find a kind of basic purity that it went entirely off the grid.

When we take things like hymns seriously as art and as theological tools, we're affording them a value in our attempt to become, in our attempt to more fully connect with divinity. When Sufjan sings "Holy, Holy, Holy," he's teaching. The hymn is doing its job, and as the interpreter and presenter of the art, he's doing his as well. That's why it works. He could just as easily do this with a song that doesn't try to be "religious" at all. Any song that meets the criteria above is a hymn in my book. Unfortunately, almost all contemporary Christian art (which I don't really recognize as its own category) fails to meet even one of those standards. I don't think it's because people are less able to create something beautiful that teaches me a theological truth—I think it's because Christianity (which is different from a life lived in and through Christ) is about presentation and perception and baseless emotion. In short, it's about selling me something.

Lemme Buy Some Jesus

Now, I'm not trying to put all churches in a basket here. I'm aware that many still practice meaningful, inspiring liturgy in a meaningful, inspiring space. It happens. I've seen it. But it's far more likely that I'll see some place called The Rock or Lighthouse or LoveSpace or J-Man's Clubhouse 4 Totes Awesome Timez. And what would I find in there? Probably "contemporary worship." Now, before I go on an old-man rant, let me say that I recognize the need for nuance. Not all churches do anything, not all contemporary worship is the worst, etc. Still, I can't remember the last time I heard a hymn that taught me anything that wasn't written by a dead person. Praise and worship songs (and the worship environments they feed and are fed by) are anthems meant to evoke an emotion, not tell you anything. It's not about you contributing to the worship in that moment, it's about the worship affecting you. This approach reeks of commercialism and marketing, which has become the mark of American Christianity. Churches are stores, and you shop around for one, and you buy the one that fits.

Hymns are an extension of the need to create in the face of the Creator, to create while being created. It's a fascinating way to connect with who we are and who we wish to be. The fact that such a process has become so largely about hitting the top of the Christian charts is depressing, naturally. I'm probably not telling you anything you don't know. Entering into a new Worship Center complete with gym and smoothie bar would be enough to show you that bringing people into churches is a business. The art is reflected in this cynical, extremely un-Christ-like model. Most new worship songs are as flat as the large screens they're projected on. Asking me to sing "Jesus, I love you" fifty times doesn't mean anything. It's about trying to get me to feel something. To have big feelings. Because if I have big feelings, I'll come back for more feelings, and eventually I'm donating to a place called The Highest Loft for a new warehouse to feel in. And I guarantee that what I experience in that space won't be about confronting the Divine. It won't be about reshaping my mind, heart, and the works of my hands. It'll be about getting me to buy in to a message with all the depth of a Thomas Kinkade painting. Which, incidentally, is the featured art at The Highest Loft.

So What?

So what? Where does that leave us? We know modern Christianity is increasingly hyper-capitalist. We know what this focus on self, on the push to get to "the basics" of scripture (which is usually framed as getting things squared away with yourself, again), extends into our sensory worship experience. A church's space has a tendency to reflect its theological priorities. The sights and sounds you experience in that space is critical for the theological education and spiritual health of the congregation within. Remembering that our expressions of and confrontations with the divine can be shared as meaningful worship art is a start. If we hang a painting or photograph in the church, or choose a certain hymn, let's just stop and ask why. Let's ask if the art is teaching us something, if it's moving us toward a more full life both with our fellow worshippers and with those beyond the walls. Let's ask if our hymns are good hymns, and if they're leading us deeper into the arms of goodness.

Just Bear Witness, Already

"My father painted like Cézanne and understood the southern French landscape the way Cézanne did. His vision of the world was sane, full of balance, full of veneration for structure, for the relations of masses and for all the circumstances that impress an individual identity on each created thing. His vision was religious and clean, and therefore his paintings were without decoration or superfluous comment, since a religious man respects the power of God's creation to bear witness for itself. My father was a very good artist."Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton is a theological ninja, able to slip in undetected and drop an amazing thought before anyone realizes he's done it. It's what makes him both profound and fun to read. I mean, just read the quote again. See?

The idea that creation bears its own witness is critical for the religious-minded artist. At least, it should be. It would be easy for me to tear apart "Christian" art with this one idea/weapon. I won't speak for other religions here (you shouldn't do that anyway, generally), but I have enough life lived in the Christian experience to say that it's fraught with the desire to dress up what need not be, to create art that explains, rationalizes, and demystifies the divine life. Unfortunately, that's unnecessary at best and spiritually harmful at worst.

People want to make things which reflect their experiences in the world; that's what art is. In the process of shaping, molding, and recreating our encounter with the created, it's easy to get lost in the desire to pile on too much. We want to show others what we see, to drive them deep into the heart of what is or was meaningful to us. Merton is asking us to step back, to pause and let what is powerfully and beautifully created speak for itself. This doesn't mean we can't try to represent it in our own way. Rather, seeking to be a good artist, especially one with an eye towards the divine, means letting what is true hover as close to the surface of our work as possible. Quit covering up beautiful stuff, dammit.

When we equate being a good artist with "respecting the power of God's creation to bear witness for itself" as Merton does, we're giving ourselves a wonderful cosmology in which God infuses all that is, in which God is Being itself, calling the created world in such a way as to drive our participation in it. This is why trying to separate Christian art from the rest gets murky; it can all be Christian if it allows the Word an opportunity to speak clearly. It can all be religious. It can all be an expression of our being in the world, our belonging to Being (though just because it can doesn't mean it will). If it's good art, it'll tell us something true, something about what it means to be alive and engaged with a created world in which all things are becoming. And if it's really good art, it'll bear witness.

At Least I Wrote This

It’s been several weeks since my last piece, but my time lately has been an odd mixture of being legitimately busy and struggling with writer’s block. The struggle continues as I’m typing this, really. I’m usually fairly certain of what I want to say when I sit down to write, but that sense of knowing has been quite absent lately. Of course any writer has dealt with this at one time or another, but it’s caused me to wonder whether my approach to it, my combination of attitude and actual response, is telling of whether I can actually call myself a writer.

Logan and I had a brief discussion about this a few days ago when he asked me “What makes one a writer?” The answer I formed did not describe me, and it quickly showed me where I am lacking, or at least where I think of myself as lacking. The problem is there is no universal blanket ideal covered by the word “writer.” People write successfully with drastically different styles, approaches, and attitudes when it comes to the activity of writing. So even though I answered Logan’s question as best I could, I knew that perhaps I wasn’t being gracious with myself. Perhaps my answer was more of what I thought a writer should be/do in order to get the work done, which really might just be a commentary on what I think I should be doing to get the work done.

That said, I’m still convinced that there are some traits or habits that writers, at least the ones who should call themselves writers, have. I admit that what I’m about to say may not apply to you, reader, if you call yourself a writer. Just chalk it up to the internal monologue I’m dealing with around the subject, and know that I’m probably still trying to figure out the answer by working it out here and now. Also know that what I’m referencing here is more of a big-picture musing than specific/organized thoughts on the subject. If that’s what you’re interested in, read Stephen King’s On Writing. Matter of fact, read it regardless of what you’re interested in; it’s that good.

The first trait that came time mind is two-fold: that a writer will have both a desire to write and actual words to express that desire when he/she sits down to do so. This is not true all the time, of course. No one person can constantly be the most prolific or have complete mastery of both thought and language all the time. It’s a bit much to ask, even of the greats. Writer’s block is a known concept for a reason, after all. Still, it seems that those who care about writing – as an expression, as art, as a craft – possess both the need and the general means to do the work.

I realize that’s a bit conceptual and abstract, which is why the second trait I sense makes one a writer is highly practical. Tied for importance with the desire to write and the skill/insight/intelligence/wit/etc. to do so is that one actually sits down and writes every day. It doesn’t really matter if what you write every day is material good enough to make it to a second draft or on to public viewing after that. What matters is to exercise, to practice, and weed the surplus of material for what’s usable.

A few weeks ago I attended Neil Gaiman’s reading/signing event in Nashville. Listening to a master of the craft talk about what his own process and career is enough to make you want to pack it up and go home, but it also provides some insight into how great material can emerge from just putting one’s head down and doing the work. Gaiman has stories to tell, so he plows through and writes. He mentioned how his latest novel, Ocean at the End of the Lane, began as a short story to his wife, but kept changing and growing as he sat down day after day, putting pen to paper and making a habit of the task. He even mentioned his personal tradition of writing with a different color of ink each day to keep track of progress. Like Gaiman, those with stories to tell should be strengthening the mental muscle needed to express them, writing and reading because they must to make things right within themselves and their world. Unlike Gaiman, most of us won’t be able to do so with such mastery, but that’s not the point. Writers write to tell the stories that rest within and yearn to be told without.

I couldn't write anything for two months because life and work are busy, and 60% of the time I procrastinate all the time. Give me a break. Give yourself a break. To get out of the rut, I wrote this thing about writing. Now that it’s done I’ll try to put my head down and write, but don't count on it.

Sorry, Neil Gaiman. At least I wrote this.