Thoughts on ‘art’ as ‘ministry’

michelangelo

When churched people learn I’m a stained glass artisan who also writes fiction, after they recover from the initial surprise, they often spin my vocation as some form of ministry. (After all, it’s artistic, not practical. Not ‘real’ work, eh) So my windows must be for churches and my stories about Jesus or theology. Or maybe the End Times – that’s OK too.

If I have the time and enough of a relationship with the individual, I try to explain my “Christian” testimony in these contexts actually consists of me treating my client well, doing the work honestly, on time, on budget, and meeting or exceeding expectations in terms of design, execution, and craft. It does not mean I incorporate the shape of a Cross in the window or hide the face of Jesus somewhere in the pattern. And when it comes to writing, well my speculative fiction pieces are most definitely NOT dramatized sermons with Chapter and Verse cross references. In fact, I caution some people against reading my stuff because I sense they’re looking for moralistic parables or family-friendly entertainment. My stuff will only confuse them.

Over the years I’ve encountered various reactions that range from relief through perplexity to downright distrust. Some people understand. Others simply aren’t wired for it. Some are in different  places in their faith, and a few are so locked in to a particular mindset about religion, that any derivation is deviation and immediately suspect. Even though I’ve run this gauntlet many times, I’m on edge whenever it comes up; I’m not looking to argue or persuade someone against their convictions. I’m simply doing what God has set before me – however clumsily.

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After this morning’s devotions, my eye caught the spine of a book on one of my overflowing shelves: Dorothy Sayer’s ‘Letters to a Diminished Church’. Opening it, it fell to a dog-eared page.

“The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours and to come to church on Sundays. What the church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.

   Church by all means and decent forms of amusement certainly – but what use is all that if in the very center of his life and occupation he is insulting God with bad carpentry? No crooked table legs or ill-fitting drawers ever, I dare swear, came out of the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth. Not, if they did, could anyone believe they were made by the same hand that made Heaven and earth. No piety in the worker will compensate for work that is not true to itself; for any work that is untrue to its own technique is a living lie.

   Yet in Her own buildings, in Her own ecclesiastical art and music, in Her hymns and prayers, in Her sermons and in Her little books of devotion, the Church will tolerate or permit a pious intention to excuse work so ugly, so pretentious, so tawdry and twaddling, so insincere and insipid, so bad as to shock and horrify any decent draftsman.

   And why? Simply because She has lost all sense of the fact that the living and eternal truth is expressed in work only so far as that work is true in itself, to itself, to the standards of its own technique. She has forgotten that the secular vocation is sacred. Forgotten that a building must be good architecture before it can be a good church; that a painting must be well painted before it can be called a good sacred picture; that work must be good work before it can call itself God’s work.”

This absolutely rings true for me. This is what makes me strive to be a better, more creative stained glass artisan and to write more honestly and skillfully. I hold myself against this standard whenever I step up to my worktable or sit down at my desk.

And this principle right here is why I urge any believing artist never to shy away from honing their craft and employing any and all the conventions of their medium and genre to make good work. Excellence should always be the mark of Christian endeavor. Our worldview provides us with a foundation, not a straitjacket. Faith is inherently supernatural. It is wings, not chains. It is a benchmark gauge, not a Procrustean Bed.

Don’t accuse me of advocating gratuitousness here, I’m not. By all means be gracious and aware. But Christian artists must access all the tools available to them so their work – whatever that is – stays true to itself and thus to God.

No, I won’t always thread the tension between my flawed understanding and the reality of God without a hitch. But I have to do the work set before me, tackle each project honestly to the best of my ability, and trust it is God who works in me both to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. (Phil. 2:13)

Trust God. Go forth and Art hard.

Have a good day.

 

 

  • PS: This is also the reason I’m simultaneously stunned and irritated with ‘Christian’ services like VidAngel that censor naughty language and ‘offensive’ scenes from television/movies like Netflix’ recent “Black Mirror” and “Bright”. As if cuss words were the defining factor in secular content and not hearing them somehow makes me more Christian, or renders the show magically ‘God-fearing’ and acceptable. Those folks are cashing in on a cloistered religious mindset and utter lack of discernment.
  • BTW, ‘Black Mirror’ is a disturbing as it is brilliantly incisive. I wish I had the chops to write those kinds of stories.

 

 

Three Quick Thoughts on Writing

Once upon a time

It’s work. No getting around this. I get flowing with inspiration but most of the time you’ve got to take a deep breath, dive in and trust inspiration to follow. Writing begets writing. Anything worth doing is worth the time and effort to do well. Step back. Take a breather, fine. But don’t give up. Keep your butt in the chair.

The field is overwhelmingly crowded. It’s up to what, a million books published per year in the US now? 2/3rds of those are indie/self published. So 8,760 hours in a year, that’s 114 books per hour.  There is a flood of new titles every time I log onto Amazon. All of them best sellers, each the latest hotness, fulled with explosive action/steamy romance/engaging plot lines ripped from tomorrow’s headlines/spine-chilling horror… Many of them with double, triple, even four times the number of reviews of established classics in their genres. Any writer with a lick of self-awareness can’t help but wonder how their work can stand on its own, let alone get noticed. But that’s the playing field now. And yes, it’s even more work piled on top of the actual writing work.  

I can’t not write. We’ve all been ready to throw up our hands in despair. If you haven’t, you’re either a colossal self-deluded egotist, or you’ve got to give it more time. That said, if story-telling is in your bones, you’ve got to keep going for your own sanity’s sake. I wish you massive commercial success: foreign language rights, weeks on the best seller list, movie rights… but for many of us, the real pay off is not going to be the silver we get in our bank, but the iron we get in our souls by persevering in the creative process. What, you really going to give up and watch TV?

Have a good day. You’re going to make it.

Need a kick in the butt? Read THE WAR OF ART

Resist the Internet

A NY Times article by Ross Douthat

Yes, I am posting it on my blog. Irony can be pretty ironic, eh?

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So far, in my ongoing series of columns making the case for implausible ideas, I’ve fixed race relations and solved the problem of a workless working class. So now it’s time to turn to the real threat to the human future: the one in your pocket or on your desk, the one you might be reading this column on right now.

Search your feelings, you know it to be true: You are enslaved to the internet. Definitely if you’re young, increasingly if you’re old, your day-to-day, minute-to-minute existence is dominated by a compulsion to check email and Twitter and Facebook and Instagram with a frequency that bears no relationship to any communicative need.

Compulsions are rarely harmless. The internet is not the opioid crisis; it is not likely to kill you (unless you’re hit by a distracted driver) or leave you ravaged and destitute. But it requires you to focus intensely, furiously, and constantly on the ephemera that fills a tiny little screen, and experience the traditional graces of existence — your spouse and friends and children, the natural world, good food and great art — in a state of perpetual distraction.

Used within reasonable limits, of course, these devices also offer us new graces. But we are not using them within reasonable limits. They are the masters; we are not. They are built to addict us, as the social psychologist Adam Alter’s new book “Irresistible” points out — and to madden us, distract us, arouse us and deceive us. We primp and perform for them as for a lover; we surrender our privacy to their demands; we wait on tenterhooks for every “like.” The smartphone is in the saddle, and it rides mankind.

Which is why we need a social and political movement — digital temperance, if you will — to take back some control.

Of course it’s too soon to fully know (and indeed we can never fully know) what online life is doing to us. It certainly delivers some social benefits, some intellectual advantages, and contributes an important share to recent economic growth.

But there are also excellent reasons to think that online life breeds narcissism, alienation and depression, that it’s an opiate for the lower classes and an insanity-inducing influence on the politically-engaged, and that it takes more than it gives from creativity and deep thought. Meanwhile the age of the internet has been, thus far, an era of bubbles, stagnation and democratic decay — hardly a golden age whose customs must be left inviolate.

So a digital temperance movement would start by resisting the wiring of everything, and seek to create more spaces in which internet use is illegal, discouraged or taboo. Toughen laws against cellphone use in cars, keep computers out of college lecture halls, put special “phone boxes” in restaurants where patrons would be expected to deposit their devices, confiscate smartphones being used in museums and libraries and cathedrals, create corporate norms that strongly discourage checking email in a meeting.

Then there are the starker steps. Get computers — all of them — out of elementary schools, where there is no good evidence that they improve learning. Let kids learn from books for years before they’re asked to go online for research; let them play in the real before they’re enveloped by the virtual.

Then keep going. The age of consent should be 16, not 13, for Facebook accounts. Kids under 16 shouldn’t be allowed on gaming networks. High school students shouldn’t bring smartphones to school. Kids under 13 shouldn’t have them at all. If you want to buy your child a cellphone, by all means: In the new dispensation, Verizon and Sprint will have some great “voice-only” plans available for minors.

I suspect that versions of these ideas will be embraced within my lifetime by a segment of the upper class and a certain kind of religious family. But the masses will still be addicted, and the technology itself will have evolved to hook and immerse — and alienate and sedate — more completely and efficiently.

But what if we decided that what’s good for the Silicon Valley overlords who send their kids to a low-tech Waldorf school is also good for everyone else? Our devices we shall always have with us, but we can choose the terms. We just have to choose together, to embrace temperance and paternalism both. Only a movement can save you from the tyrant in your pocket.

On the Table

My other job…

Two commission pieces taking up table space right now.

Client requested the pieces to be as period authentic as possible, so they’re based on a turn of the century Arts and Crafts design, and 70% of the glass was salvaged from antique leaded glass panels. Be nice when they’re finally installed. They always look better in context.

Also working on a line of medium size suncatchers/panels for my Etsy shop.But that’s for another day.

Take care and have a good weekend.

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The Brilliant and Beautiful Rejection of San Junipero

Black Mirror, Season 3 Episode 4 that is.

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I am tripping on Black Mirror. My lips to God’s ears,  I wish I had the chops to write things like it.

As long as I’m confessing… I binged the first two seasons when they appeared on Netflix and have been spending most every spare minute on Season 3 since it was announced last week. Sort of a Twilight Zone on Crystal Meth and a 4G Wireless connection, the series has riveting plots, great writing, and pitch-perfect acting that synthesizes each episode into a polished splinter digging in that sensitive intersection of human nature, technological advances, and social trends.

That’s not saying I ‘like’ each episode or agree with the conclusions. It’s not Family Friendly by any stretch. (I suppose as a Christian, I’m not supposed to appreciate it, but frankly Scarlet…. ) Polished as each vignette is, the tone is brutally frank and deeply unsettling. I suspect the real reason it gets so uncomfortable at times is how authentic, incisive, and terribly plausible it all is.

Which brings me to San Junipero – the episode I watched during lunch yesterday.

As a thirty-one year Christian, former Christian Drama Team leader, pastor, and missionary, Sunday School teacher, Bible Study leader, etc, I can’t recall ever seeing such a brilliant and beautiful dismissal of religious faith. I mean that sincerely. I was speechless with admiration not choking on indignation. It was a slice of artistic genius.

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It would be difficult to explain line by line how San Junipero encapsulated such a momentous dismissal unless you’re familiar with the traditional Biblical worldview and you watched the episode. I don’t want to slather a spoiler-filled synopsis here. But if you’ve seen it,  I bet you’ll follow along: start with the distinctly secular, scientific premise of digitized consciousness/personhood, add the lesbian relationship, the one character’s heart-rending rejection by ‘strict religious family, the other’s poignant lack of faith concerning belief in ‘life after the death’ in the case of her spouse and daughter. Then so to the perpetual Spring Break hedonism of the virtual ‘afterlife’  – (in the 80s, no less)  Add it up and the underlying statements are plain: there is no soul, no Eternity, no spiritual dynamic to life, no accountability, no consequences.The episode is  a complete dismissal of and substitute for religious faith. The writers even managed to give  Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven is a Place on Earth far more meaning than it ever had. (or deserves)

 Ooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth?
Ooh, heaven is a place on earth
They say in heaven, love comes first
We’ll make heaven a place on earth
Ooh, heaven is a place on earth

The purpose here is not to air my sniveling, or rate the show on some Faith- Based Approval Scale, or offer a Believer’s Public Service Warning. I really do appreciate the show. It is excellent and challenging.

If there’s a caution, it’s to myself. I know God’s redemption is real – I’ve experienced it in my own life and seen it authentically transform others in America and overseas.

That said, I’ve concluded lately that much of the Western church still operates under the illusion that many non-believers/other-believers need or want or are interested in the Gospel message. Maybe twenty-five years ago, but not anymore.  Not really. If anything these days, they’re indifferent. Or dismissive. Contemptuous. Even hostile.

The fact is, most folks are already confirmed and committed not just to carnal and consumer distractions but to a definite worldview. Or they have sought out and bought into alternative remedies to their questions and issues, selecting them from the drop down menu of hundreds of available options in our pluralistic, globally-connected, information age world. We Christians assume they’re hungry in quiet desperation when in reality they are all set and just ate. And yet we’re still knocking on the door with yesterday’s sandwich.

So my personal caution is this: as an artist and a writer, as a human being who believes and has experienced God’s Grace, I am convicted of my need to earnestly, diligently pray for His Spirit to inform and infuse my character, my words, and my work. The world is far better at everything than I am. And they have more of it. The only thing I really have isn’t even mine – the grace and truth that is in Jesus. And I can and should do my level best to pass that on as uncut and consistently as possible. But it needs to be in my bones not just on my bumper sticker. Because in the end, that is the only way I can be a genuine witness to His death, resurrection, and reality.

Have a nice day.

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And watch Black Mirror. 

 

 

 

Back at it.

worst-apology-everBeen a while here. The last three months have been crammed with work deadlines, disability/health issues, the birth of grandchild number 4, writing-related adjustments, plus the usual Real Life grind, and in all that, writing and blogging were put on the back burner on Low. Real low.

I apologize to any of you who glanced this way for new work or posts. Certainly don’t mean to disappoint folks who are kind enough to spend time here or with my work. Apologies to Dave Alderman in specific: my promised read and review fell off the edge of my world. (There be dragons) It’s next in my reading queue.

I’ve managed to beat back the tangle and started in again. After all, forward is the only direction we’ve got. More stuff coming soon.

I am sincere here, but this was too funny not to post.

Have a good day.

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Casting Stones and Stumbling Blocks

“A prophet gone wrong is almost always more interesting than your grandmother…”

  • Flannery O’Connor

 

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Been on the perimeter of yet another round of Believers Brick-Tag, i.e. the “Spec-fiction is a stumbling block/supernatural and,or worldly elements are a grievous offense” discussion, and I feel the need to stake out what seems incredibly obvious yet damnably elusive.

First off, let’s reiterate the distinction between theology and speculative fiction. One is the systematic study of God and religious belief, the other is – by definition  – made up stories.

Now I know atheists would say this is true of the Bible itself, but that’s a different discussion. To repeat my mantra: a novel is not a sermon. It’s one of those ‘apples and orangutans’ things, people. Similar raw material (words and ideas) but different modes, different purposes, different content.

You don’t get into an elevator for the music. You shouldn’t look for theology in a dystopian YA novel or an urban fantasy series. I know they make truth-claims and worldview statements either overtly or obliquely. EVERYTHING DOES. You must have heard the phrase ‘spit out the bones’. It’s time to exercise discernment – the same level one employs when selecting kitchen utensils to say, scramble eggs. “Put away the corkscrew and tenderizing mallet.”

If you want Christian theology, read the Bible, church history, and apologetics. Don’t get it from a Wachowski movie or a K-pop hit or a Marvel comic book or a “Left Behind” novel. That’s akin to making life-choices based on fortune cookies. Which would be bad. That some people do in fact cobble belief systems from Star Trek and Pink Floyd, then Quick-Pick their Happy Panda Lucky Numbers constitutes a severe failure in their judgment. (I suspect LSD and alcohol is a factor in such cases)

Second, let’s remember the distinctions between the artist, their art, and their audience. Souls are saved, art is not. Art is a product of a remarkable, mysterious synergy, but it is a construct nonetheless. Painting a night sky means you’ll have to break out a tube of black paint. It doesn’t mean you’re a ‘dark’ individual. Just don’t expect to sell it to folks who are partial to sunrises.

While the call to genuine character, sound thinking, and the fundamentals of Christian doctrine apply to every believer, the vocation of an artist – in this case, writer – is not that of the preacher or theologian. One employs drama, metaphor, allegory, and myth, while the other expounds on biblical spiritual truth and (hopefully) delivers an inspired rhema for a particular time, place, and congregation.

Both engage with the transcendent. Each borrows from the others toolbox. I’m not elevating one over the other- I’m simply noting they approach it from vastly different angles. See the C.S Lewis quote on Reason and Imagination. (Incidentally, doctrine is how we engage with the transcendent – not beat it into submission; directions to the doctor are not the doctor. Dreams about the doctor aren’t either.)

I happen to be a Christian who writes spec-fiction for a non-Christian audience. Part of my obligation before God is to recognize the conventions of the genre and the expectations of my readers. I have to be faithful to those dynamics too, then do the work to the best of my ability. And to echo Dorothy Sayers, work must be good work before it can be God’s work because pious trash is still trash.

Last, let’s distinguish between Realistic and Gratuitous, between being Sensitive and Pandering.

Let’s face it: “Christian gritty” is pretty tame. Many Christian fiction writers try to genuinely honor the conventions of their genres as well as strive for credibility, consistency, and realism, but we don’t come close to reality. Not really.

Not that our gold standard is Triple X Snuff Porn with a dash of Corporate Avarice and Ethnic Cleansing, but it’s worth remembering ‘worldly’ content is taken from the real world – a real world that is definitely not PG-13, that God still loves, hasn’t abandoned, and meets precisely at its shameful, broken, ugly point of need. That’s what the Cross was and Salvation is.

When writing fiction, I’m certainly not for inserting cruel, coarse, or lascivious content for shock or titillation. But realistic themes where and when they’re organic to the characters and story line? Absolutely. It’s mandatory, in fact. Anything less cheapens the work, and strikes me as inherently duplicitous and dishonoring to God.

Now that kind of content may well make some readers uncomfortable. Shock them even, to the point where the alarmist ‘stumbling block’ phrase gets volleyed about loudly and frequently.

Look, I’m all for being sensitive to someone’s weakness or struggles. I’ll refrain if I know someone has a problem. That’s basic human compassion and consideration. But I’m all done pandering to the ‘professional weaker brother’, those tedious brethren who make a habit, a career, a ministry of taking offense, then running around telling everyone. It’s deliberate immaturity, demanding everyone bend down because they refuse to grow up. We’re walking on eggshells while they stomp all over personal convictions, choices, and liberty. I’m going to make a lot of mistakes, but I’m not going to second guess myself into paralysis, mediocrity, and anemia.

Over thirty years as a believer, a majority of them in full or part time ministry of some kind, it’s my experience too many in the church prefer tidy affirmations to hard-edged hope. Christians in any walk of life or vocation have to reject the notion  that the call to be ‘in the world but not of it’ translates into a license to be ignorant or insular. The root meaning of “holiness” is not sterile separation but the notion of being set apart for a particular use. We cannot hide from ugly realities or contradictory philosophies (or worse, ridicule, reduce and sanitize them) then think we can be effective in addressing them with any meaningful offer of God’s redemption.

I’ll end with this thought from Harry Dreyfuss, actor Richard Dreyfuss’ son. (Good find, K.C.)

“If you can’t stand to listen to an idea, it does not prove that you oppose it. Refusing to show interest in a different perspective should not serve as a badge of pride in your own ideas. It actually serves the exact opposite function. It proves that you don’t even understand your own opinion. If you can’t understand the argument you disagree with, then you don’t have the right to disagree with it with any authority, nor do you really have a grasp on what your own idea means in its context.” – Harry Dreyfuss

Have a good day, and in the words of Chuck Wendig, “Go forth and art hard.”