Showing posts with label Art. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Art. Show all posts

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Dark Knight, Taste, and Discernment

The Dark Knight was one of the biggest, best-received movies ever made. It garnered nearly universal praise, even from reviewers not normally fond of superhero movies or summer blockbusters, despite the fact that it fit thoroughly (if perhaps not neatly) into both genres. The movie also polarized some Christian viewers. On the one hand there were those who acclaimed the movie as a fantastic piece of art. On the other were those who decried it for its the unbiblical message they felt it sent.

Jaimie and I rewatched the movie tonight on Blu-Ray, having borrowed it from her father (on the player we inherited from him, no less). This was my fourth or fifth viewing, and every time I sit down with the film, I come away more solidly in that first came: believing it to be an outstanding piece of art. That is not to call it flawless, but rather to affirm that the artistic and yes, thematic excellence of the piece far outweigh the places where the film stumbles.

(I will be covering spoilers, so if you haven't seen it read, you should skip the rest of the post, go watch the movie, and then come back.) Most of the criticism of the film focused not on the general artistic quality, which was undeniably excellent, but on the story's conclusion. A brief review: Harvey Dent, corrupted by the Joker's continued taunts, insults, and destruction, has killed several police officers in revenge for his girlfriend's death. Batman arrives on scene as Dent is about to kill another officer's son, and eventually stops him, but kills Dent—who had, until his fall, been a shining symbol of hope to the city.

None of this was controversial. What followed was: Batman volunteered to take responsibility for the deaths that Dent had caused, saying that the people of Gotham could never know that Harvey had fallen. They deserved better, he believed—and so he would take the guilt that belonged to Dent, though he and one other knew it to be a lie. The lie tripped a lot of people up, and for good reason: Batman essentially says that it's better for the people to believe a lie, as long as they still have hope, than to know the truth.

So far as this goes, the criticism was justified. Lies are not the best, most ethical option. Moreover, the decision undercuts some of the other thematic material in the movie, particularly in Bruce Wayne/Batman's oft-repeated belief that the people of Gotham will not play the Joker's game of chaos and evil, but can be inspired to rise above it. The lie here does those same people, who only minutes before had proved him right, considerable injustice. It assumes they can't handle the truth.

At the same time, it's hard to miss the parallels to Christ here. (Whether they were intended or not is a separate question, and in some ways an irrelevant one: much of Western art ends up referencing Christ unconsciously because of how deeply the gospel narrative has been embedded in our conceptual frameworks.) One man takes another's sins on himself. One man sacrifices his own well-being, respect, and honor for the sake of many others. One man willingly subjects himself to public scorn, to being hunted for punishment, so that others might have hope.

The analogy isn't perfect. Then again, neither was David's prefiguring of Christ; his life was marred murder and adultery. Few of the Biblical characters escaped unscathed—even those whose lives most dramatically pictured Christ. In my viewing of The Dark Knight, it seemed to me that, likely because of Christianity's impact on our culture, we have in this film a shadowy echo of the gospel. It is not the whole picture, and it is distorted in some very particular ways by the postmodern ethos that underlies much of director Christopher Nolan's output—not least in the notion that the hopeful lie is better than the discouraging truth.

The question we are left asking is: do those postmodernist impulses overpower the hints of Truth (yes, with a capital T) that come through in the rest of the film? And if so, where is the line to be drawn? Should we throw out any art that does not muster up to some arbitrary line that we have defined?

Of course I think the answer must be no—but that is a cautious, thoughtful no. We shoudl not simply ingest whatever messages are being fed us by art and culture. Even excellent artists and Christians like C. S. Lewis' best fiction requires some careful, discerning, thoughtful engagement. Despite their many merits, The Chronicles of Narnia have quite a few theological missteps. We don't throw them out on that basis, but we should read them more carefully than most do. The same can be said for movies and other art produced by Christians and non-Christians alike. For all our fallenness—and we are fallen very far indeed—we remain made in the image of God, and so there is much that is good created by all people.

Our job as responsible Christians is to engage that art, understand and rejoice in the parts that glorify God, and repudiate those parts that do not. I can appreciate the analogies to Christ in The Dark Knight without believing that we should lie when expediency seems to demand it.

As a closing aside: discernment may be primarily spiritual, but taste is good, too. We do no one any favors when we gush over movies that frankly are not all that good. I'm looking at myself in the past here, so this finger is pointing back at me. In cases like the one linked there, we can appreciate the message presented while being more critical of the art—rather the inverse of the situation with many secularly produced movies. Christians need to stop raving about art of any kind simply because it is produced by other Christians, and start valuing excellence in art in all its forms.

(This does count as Friday's post, because as far as I am concerned, the official day may be Saturday, but I am still functioning in Friday mode, and I have yet to go to sleep. Accordingly, there will be another post tomorrow/later today.)

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Music that Moves the Heart

Last night Jaimie and I went to a Trace Bundy concert in Tulsa—$60 for the tickets, four hours of driving (and the associated tank of gas), and the cost of coffee and ice cream so I could stay awake for the drive home, all for about an hour and a half of music. It was absolutely worth it. Trace Bundy is an outstanding artist, who writes the sort of relaxing music that you could fall asleep to if only it weren't so interesting and his technique so astounding. I had been up since 4:30 am, but my eyes were glued to his fingers as he pulled seemingly impossible combinations out of the frets of his acoustic guitar.

I own every non-Christmas album the man has published, and seeing him in person blew me away. I have heard almost every song he played last night (the backwards arrangement of "Happy Birthday" was a new one), and still I found myself engrossed, enthralled by the music coming from the stage. The man has a lot of talent.

He's also humble, putting his sense of humor to good use in establishing ties with his audience and knocking down any hint of pretentiousness. One of the most interesting moments in the concert was his description of the meaning behind his "Love Song"—a reminder to do things he does out of love. He smiled quietly and finished, "After all: if I'm the best guitar player you've ever seen and I don't have love, I am nothing" (a quiet but definite reference to 1 Corinthians 13:1-3). The song has always been one of my favorites. Now it tops the list.

Music is a powerful thing. At its best, it moves us out of ourselves, opens our eyes a little more to the majesty and mystery of the universe. No one, I think, has expressed this more clearly than J. R. R. Tolkien. The opening of The Silmarillion is his creation story for the grand myth he created. The Creator God, Eru Ilúvatar, has composed a grand symphony for the Valar and Maiar (angels) to sing the universe into being—but Melkor, the greatest of his servants, has begun a rebellion in the heavens, and sings discord into the melody Eru has created ("it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself"). The Creator God's response has always rung true to me:

But Ilúvatar sat and harkened until it seemed that about his throne there was a raging storm, as of dark waters that made war one upon another in an endless wrath that would not be assuaged.

Then Ilúvatar arose, and the Ainur [angels] perceived that he smiled; and he lifted up his left hand, and a new theme began amid the storm, like and yet unlike the former theme, and it gathered power and had new beauty. But the discord of Melkor rose in uproar and contended with it, and again there was a war of sound more violent than before, until many of the Ainur were dismayed and sang no longer, and Melkor had the mastery. Then gain Ilúvatar arose, and the Ainur perceived that his countenance was stern; and he lifted up his right hand, and behold! a third theme grew amid the confusion, and it was unlike the others. For it seemed at first soft and sweet, a mere rippling of gentle sounds in delicate melodies; but it could not be quenched, and it took to itself power and profundity. And it seemed at last that there were two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Ilúvatar, and they were utterly at variance. The one was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came. The other had now achieved a unity of its own; but it was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes. And it essayed to drown the other music by the violence of its voice, but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern.

In the midst of this strife, whereat the halls of Ilúvatar shook and a tremor ran out into the silences yet unmoved, Ilúvatar arose a third time, and his face was terrible to behold. Then he raised up both his hands, and in one chord, deeper than the Abyss, higher than the Firmament, piercing as the light of the eye of Ilúvatar, the Music ceased.

Then Ilúvatar spoke, and he said: "Mighty are the Ainur, and mightest among them is Melokor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.

The passage goes on from there, and much of the rest of it is interesting as well. I remain stunned by that first image of God creating through music, and particularly the picture of God's sovereignty expressed in music, so that even the greatest thing the Enemy can create is in the end to the greater glory of God's music.

Though of course in our world God created by word and not by song, we know that God made music as well. We know that the music we create, the music that we love to listen to, the music that moves our souls, is an echo of the music God has made. We know that our hearts respond to music the way they do because God delights in music, too, and because he has made us to be moved by beauty. The same is true for every kind of art.

For too long, Christians have let art be the purview of the world. We need to remember that art is God's, and that means it is good. We need more people willing to make the sacrifice to be an outstanding artist—to be willing to be "impractical" at times and work hard at making good art, even if other jobs might pay better or be more stable. Art is good.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Songs With Anchors

Over the last few days, I have been listening to a collection of astoundingly beautiful music. Arvo Pärt is one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century. He started his musical career at the height of serialism's popularity, and his earliest works bear the imprint of the era. Despite the deterministic influences, Pärt even then distinguished himself as having a particular talent for composing particularly compelling, melodically rich and harmonically powerful music.

In later years, he left behind the serialism and kept the impressive force with which he communicates ideas. Whether in his instrumental or his choral works, emotion of the deepest sort tugs at the soul. He somehow pulls reality into the shape of his notes, leaving the soul aching with joy at the beauty of all that is and longing for all that we wait for.

Pärt's music carries such power because it bears the imprint of an influence beyond serialism. The Estonian composer writes from the rich cultural depths of the Eastern Orthodox liturgy. Whatever its theological troubles (and it has a few), the Eastern Orthodox church has remembered the power of mystery, and has held onto the already/not-yet tensions of this age far better than the Protestants generally have. The liturgy provides both template and mold for Pärt's writing: its history and weight have given shape to his thought and language, and it is for the church that he often writes.

Part's music soars with joy because the world is good, and God delights in what he has made. It strains with yearning because, for all that the kingdom of God is among us, we still wait for its fulfillment. Christ has died, and Christ is risen, but Christ will come again. We live in the age of inauguration, when the world to come is breaking into this one, like light shining through the cracks into the dark of our eggshell.

Others have often observed that the liturgical traditions have done a far better job producing world-class artists than the evangelical movement has. Among the various hypotheses offered, I think two bear the mark of truth.

First, the liturgical traditions are inherently loaded with narrative. Indeed, whatever its weaknesses, the church calendar and litany continually remind parishioners of the sweeping work of God—and emphasize that his work is not yet done. The triumphalism that has marked evangelicalism, especially evangelicalism in its culturally and politically ascendant moments, is continually held in check by the weight of tradition. (That weight carries a cost, as well, but evangelicals should pause to learn from it nonetheless.)

Second, the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches have continued to understand themselves to be part of the Great Tradition. Their words and their understanding of the world are, at their best, continually informed by their relation to the rest of the story. Thanks to a sometimes healthy distaste for tradition, evangelicals have tended to jettison this connection to history. Evangelicalism floats, buoyant, on the tides of the time. The liturgical churches are anchored—sometimes more firmly than we might like, but always at least enough to provide stability and context for the artist's imagination.

The two go together, of course: there can be little weight to narratives that are abstracted from the grand tale of history. Without an anchor for the reflecting soul, we are left simply grasping for a way to speak at the current trends of our day. We lose our sense of the eternal—of the glory that is this world, of the way it is shot through with dark horror, of the impending eucatastrophe (to borrow a term from Tolkien) that both has come and will come smashing into our world to end it and begin it all in one. We lose our ties to reality.

For the evangelical artist, the temptation is to run to Rome or Greece as a refuge for drifting souls. We dare not, though. Our convictions are too important to sacrifice for the sake of their anchors, however beautiful. We cannot relinquish the solas, and we dare not minimize the anathemas of Trent. Our differences are serious and substantial (if perhaps still not definitive).

No, we must reforge our own connection to the Great Tradition and remember what the Reformers understood: tradition is an enemy only when it trumps Scripture. Further, we need to align ourselves on Scripture itself. Too often, the Bible has been nothing more than a series of principles to apply to our lives or a ground for theological discussion. It is both of these things, but it is also more. It is the very grounds for understanding our existence. It is the context for our lives, and thus for our art.

The Bible lets fly the most epic and the most mundane aspects of our days. Its poetry sounds the depths of despair, pauses in the struggles of the ordinary day, and clambers to the pinnacles of the twin mounts of triumph and joy. Its doctrinal pronouncements are shot through with streaks of urgency and eschaton, like slabs marbled with fire.

If art, as is so often claimed, is our attempt to communicate transcendence, it must have as its ground the source of transcendence, the Transcendent One. It cannot stand on its own, weightless, any more than evangelicalism can remain stationary in the shifting sea of culture without an anchor. But evangelical art, like the evangelical project on the whole, will succeed when it is captivated by the liberating bonds of Scripture and history—and it will triumph when it sinks its anchor on the priest who sacrificed himself in our stead.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Web design

I'm beginning to think I missed my calling. Perhaps I should have been a professional web designer. I get a huge kick out of it.

I finally understand why: it mixes technical problem solving (really a certain kind of programming), which I enjoy, with the demands of artistry. On the one hand, the successful web designer must be fluent in the sometimes complex technical languages that make web design happen: HTML, CSS, XML, Javascript, and so on. I'm fairly proficient in the first two, and just dangling my toes in the water of the latter two. (Frankly, I find Javascript pretty grimy.)

At the same time, a good web designer has to have an eye for layout, understand relationships between elements, have some degree of skill in manipulating images, and be able to put typography to good use. As my wife (and, for that matter, friends from high school) can attest, I love fonts. I sometimes pick them off of signs driving down the road. I am certainly weaker in this area than in the "coding" aspect of web design, but I enjoy it as much or more. Recently, I have found myself studying web sites, admiring the good ones and critiquing the less good ones.

Even more amusingly, I find myself looking at designs and pondering how I could improve them, what I would do to make them compelling and useable.

Over the last three days, I have done a good deal more tweaking to Pillar's back end, yielding a fairly significant change in the front end appearance (go take a look). Along the way, I've puzzled out how to accomplish a number of tasks with Blogger's backend that, in my search across the web in the past have generally been considered difficult or impossible. I have also helped my sister with the site for the bike she works at, Ascent Cycling—I made different header images appear in different pages.

(Never let anyone tell you that Wordpress is more powerful or more customizable than Blogger. It's just easier to customize under certain conditions. I have used both quite a bit, and they both have their pluses and minuses.)

Because I spent a fair amount of mental energy on these puzzles, and because the answers to them, near as I can tell, do not appear anywhere else on the internet, I will be posting a few of them in the next week so that I can help others (just as plenty of other bloggers have helped me along the way). These will be more like reference pages than my normal content, so apologies to my normal readers, but I know the pages will be helpful to others in the future. (Those of you who enjoy messing with blogger may find it interesting!)

[If you're wondering about that essay I mentioned last Saturday, it's about a third done. The content is substantial and it's requiring significantly more time than I expected. That combined with the aforementioned web design efforts has led to a short delay in its publication. Worry not: it is still coming.]

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


I find more and more that I care deeply bout accomplishing meaningful objectives each day. I regularly find myself frustrated at work when my tasks seem unimportant or wasteful. I especially struggle when I have little to do. I am made to work.

Over the last 9 months, I have discovered that I love web design. I enjoy putting together attractive web sites, and I enjoy the challenge of making them work properly however one is viewing them. (Admittedly, my tangles with Internet Explorer have been less than pleasant.) At first I was designing Pillar, then redesigning this blog, then helping redesign Jaimie’s blog, then redesigning Pillar, then helping Stephen Carradini tweak the design for Gospelized, and finally doing the customizations for 52 Verses. Now that I have no such projects in view ahead of me, I feel a bit adrift.

In the past year, I have written a grand total of one piece of music, and that one not very long (though good, I think). Yesterday, I began work on a piece of clarinet and something—either piano or cello, depending on what the clarinetist can find in short order. It is refreshing; I somehow manage to forget how thoroughly entwined my soul and music are.

Yesterday, Jaimie began drawing in her sketch book—something she often used to do, but has but once or twice since we have been dating. She lost herself, apparently, in the strokes of her pencil. I know the feeling; it is how I feel when I wrote poetry, or let notes spill across (electronic) pages, or tweak a website’s design to perfection.

We are artists, all of us. Every one of us bears the imprint of our creator. I drive to work early enough to see the sunrise at one state or another—a glorious painting beyond the ability of my words to capture, no matter how I try. Our hearts are stirred by stories, moved by songs, stunned by the sweep of a cathedral. They leap at the sight of the Grand Canyon, ache to dance and shout and somehow take all the world in from the top of the Rockies, and crash in rhythm with the waves at ocean’s edge.

Not every man can be a painter, but all of us live to make something new. Every mechanic and every engineer, every plumber and yes, every person flipping burgers, is still making. Quibble if you will at their worth; admit, perhaps, that modernity so often fails to understand the point of beauty—but never deny that every man is a maker at heart. We each of us have a glimpse of God to offer to the world. Not, as so many have claimed, because we are all God, but because we were made to be like him: little mirrors that each one show a part of who he is.

I was made to make. So I sit and write posts and poetry. I spend hours on blog headers and pour my soul into new compositions. I work hard at work because I was made to make things well. Even when the things created are but lines of code that accomplish some end, I made them well. Praise God.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

52 Verses | a year of poems

As I've mentioned a few times recently, I've had a new project in the works. Unsurprisingly, it's another blog, which went live a few minutes ago.

52 Verses is an art experiment, and an opportunity to declutter Thoughts; A Flame a bit. I realize that this blog has not, historically, been very focused. Its content has ranged from the whimsical to the theological, from poetic reflections on good and evil to proasic descriptions of my life. I am in the process of slowly changing that—hopefully allowing my readers to pick and choose what they'll read from me. 52 Verses is a first step in that direction.

Just as importantly, however, at least for me, it is an opportunity to develop discipline and increase my skill in an art form I love: poetry. I have long enjoyed expressing my heart through lyrical turns of phrase, often to the detriment of my prose. I have also never really practiced poetry. Over the next year, I will. Every week by Friday at 7 pm, a new poem will be up. Sometimes, when I'm feeling particularly poetic, more than one will go up in a week, but the premise and the promise is one per week, for a year.

When the year is done, the project will end. (I'll have to find a new home for poetry at that point, but that's okay: part of the fun is putting a definite beginning and end to the project.)

I am very interested in constructive criticism, because part of the goal is becoming a better poet and a better writer. Take a look, and let me know what you think!

Friday, April 30, 2010

An Immense Announcement Demanding Attention

This one, unlike the last one, is not about me, but about a friend. Stephen Carradini is one of the best writers with whom I am personally acquainted. I have known him for three and a half years, and have had the opportunity as a friend and mentor in that time to watch him grow in his knowledge of God. I have watched him grow from a self-assured boy into a humbler man, seen him deepen in his faith, and heard him say at least a dozen times, "This is the worst day of my entire life. Seriously."

Two nights ago, he went public with his newest art project: Gospelized. The project is an experiment in finding an artistic and unique way to comment on the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ's atoning work in history. You should read it. Stephen is not only doctrinally solid; he has a vision of God-honoring artistic excellence that matches my own and the talent to execute it well.

From his About page:

Short: Gospelized is an ongoing art project about the gospel of Jesus Christ. Stories, essays, poems, pictures, drawings, songs and more will grace these pages daily in an honest exploration of what the gospel means to an artist.

Long: I am distressed by the lack of Christians making good art.

You should read the rest of the "long" description... and then you should read some of the essays, poems, and songs he has posted. You should add him to your RSS feed reader, have his posts delivered to your inbox, or check his site every day. I say that not because he is my friend (or at least: not merely because he is my friend) but because he is endeavoring to do what is all-too rare in our Christian circles: make good art. Rarer yet, he is succeeding. You will enjoy his art, and you will come away understanding God and the gospel better.

What are you waiting for? Go read Gospelized!

Friday, March 26, 2010

The first late night in a while

Perhaps I'm simply odd, but there is a part of me that very much enjoys staying up late writing. (Of course, that's the same part that is tempted to spell "writing" as "righting," so perhaps I am crazy.) Watching my wife work, I increasingly recognize that perhaps this is simply an oddity of writers.

I am rarely up this late anymore, thanks to the demands of a regular-hours job (and trust me: that is a good thing). I do occasionally miss the flexible schedule of college, especially as I often had the freedom to stay up late writing (or composing) and thinking. The only reason I am able to be up so late tonight is because I have lab time scheduled late tomorrow evening (from 7 to 10 pm) and I am only allowed to work 4 hours a day, tops, right now.

Whether because my brain is simply in a more meditative mood thanks to the late hour, or for some other reason, I find that I do much of my best reflective writing late at night. I also do some of my best composing late at night. A few years ago, I was working on a very tight deadline on a composition project and spent a number of late nights churning out the notes. The music I put out ended up being my single favorite chamber piece I composed in all of college, though I wrote it in less than 3 weeks. Similarly, many of my favorite blog posts over the years were published after midnight.

I am not the only person to find late hours productive. In addition to my aforementioned wife, I know that many writers have historically found the night a good time to work, as have many of the great men of God. Part of the reason, I suspect, is that there are far fewer distractions available late at night than there are during the day. The world is a far quieter place—even in our technologically humming age—when the sun has gone down and the rumble of traffic has died to a minimum. A little gentle music (or simply the steady pulse of a clock's ticking) and the tapping of a keyboard or the stroke of a pen are very beautiful things indeed.

Jaimie and I were discussing Karl Marx today, as she's been reading his work for a "Books of Western Civilization" class she's enrolled in. It struck me that the Marxist countries have never really known what to do with their artists, except use them as propagandists... and the reason is simple: Marx's philosophy had no room for art. For all his rejection of the symptoms of modernity's emptiness, he only substituted one form of utilitarianism for another. Just as capitalism has little understanding of the value of art in and of itself, tending either to ignore art or abuse it beyond recognition, socialism finds no room for art that is not directed at some societal end.

Stephen Carradini shares one of my great passions: to change the world with art. It is harder to do than one might think... world-changing art is rare. I would argue it is rare for at least three reasons: first, that world-changing art must be exceptional in merit; second, that it must challenge its audience without so deeply affronting them that they ignore it; and finally, that it must say something ultimate, though its subject is usually incredibly mundane. Whether world-changing art is beneficial or not largely (perhaps entirely) depends on whether its author is working within a Christian framework (though whether he or she is doing so consciously is another issue entirely).

Sleep calls me, but art calls me as well. I wonder: is this the perpetual dilemma of every even slightly artistic soul, to be torn between health and the mad rush to create? If so, perhaps it is no coincidence that our Creator-God rested when he had made all that is.

And yes, I am self-aware enough and thoughtful enough even at this late hour to recognize that one consequence of writing so late (especially being out of practice as I am) is that the post above is essentially a series of small non sequiturs.