Saturday, July 28, 2007

Modern Art Meets Its Match

In July, Ms. Sam Rindy, an artist, who was “so overcome with passion” for an immaculate white canvas on display at a French museum, that she kissed it⎯leaving a red, lipstick smudge. The painting is by artist Cy Twombly and is valued at more than $2 million.

Rindy made a statement saying that “this red stain is a testimony to this moment, to the power of art.” She said later that she was attracted to the canvas and had wanted to make it more beautiful. She was arrested and is awaiting a court date in August.

In the modern art world where gesture and audacity are everything, one would think that she would be applauded rather than vilified. However, it is also a reminder than despite foundationless aesthetics, the art establishment still values the work of some over others. They can’t have their cake and eat it too. Hats off to Ms. Rindy for reminding us that the Emperor of Art is wearing no clothes.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Even Jane Austen is No Jane Austen

In a recent article in The Guardian, Steven Morris tells about his experiment with eighteen publishers and literary agents in Great Britain to see if they would consider Jane Austen’s work publishable. He slightly modified the opening chapters of three different novels and sent them to various publishers as unsolicited manuscripts.

Not only were none of the publishers or agents interested, but only one of the eighteen actually recognized the work as Austen’s! One publisher (Penguin) went so far as to say, “Thank you for your recent letter and chapters from your book First Impressions. It seems like a really original and interesting read.” Morris had even used Austen’s original title for Pride and Prejudice in his experiment.

It does make one wonder what the criteria is for publishable works and if the transient, gimmicky, disposable aesthetic of modernity has supplanted the place of timeless classics. Of course, it could just be that serious readers are harder to come by.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Monday, July 16, 2007

More Harry Potter Discussion

As a follow-up to last month's literature discussion, here are the next two installments discussing Books 4-6. These are non-edited files that contain extraneous comments and details (such as what books we will read next and when we'll discuss them).

These are a continuation of the exploration of the spiritual and medieval symbolism inherent in these books and how J.K. Rowling uses the elements of alchemy as a structure for the stories.

Part One
Part Two

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Smell of Books

Patrick T. Reardon of the Chicago Tribune has a wonderful article on the smell of books. One can put the appropriate smell of books up there with complete sets, quality paper, and design elements as a requirement for all-sensory bibliophiles.

The Gospel Flow of Worship

The word liturgy means “the work of the people.” As such, all worship services are liturgical if they include any congregational participation. The issue is not whether a service is liturgical or not; the issue is what organizes and informs the liturgy and on what basis.

The order of worship that we employ at Parish Pres consciously seeks to accomplish several aims. As you’ve probably noticed, each section of the bulletin begins with God and His initiation. It is God who calls His people to worship, it is God who speaks to us through His Word, it is God who calls us to repentance and reconciliation, it is God who beckons us to His table, and it is God who sends us out equipped for the calling He has placed on us. It’s all about Him!

It is God who calls us, but as His people we respond with praise, attentive hearts, confession, joy, and thanksgiving. This pattern of call and response is one of the reasons we utilize Scripture-based responsive readings in worship. God calls us through His Word, and we literally respond with His words.

This pattern of worship moves the congregation from an exaltation of the nature of God, instruction from His Word, an understanding of His law and our inability to keep it, confession of sin and the need for a Redeemer, a restoration into the fellowship of God and other believers, a foretaste of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, and a sending forth into the world as His representative. Thus, the worship service itself echoes the Gospel—God calls unbelievers to Himself, reveals Himself through His Word, repentance follows with an invitation to the Marriage Feast culminating with God sending forth the believer into the world. This is the flow of the gospel; this is the flow of worship.

Friday, July 13, 2007

How Relevant is Bach, Part IV

Fourthly, Bach committed himself to teaching others for the purpose of raising up future church musicians and laity who could worship through song. In Johann Sebastian Bach: An Introduction to His Life and Music, Russell H. Miles points out that “Bach’s interest and patience in helping young people is unique among the great composers.” Bach scholar Christoph Wolff wrote that “Bach was one of the most active, dedicated, and prolific teachers the world has seen” (Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician). Students lived with him and his family and even moved with him at various times. Based on the number of active students, Bach taught at least four to six professional level students at any given time. By all accounts, his students were devoted to him throughout the rest of their lives.

Most importantly, Bach did not teach dry technique, but passed along life lessons in the application of theology to music. Wolff states that, “Bach explored, probed, and taught the principles that govern music—not only its physical, technical side but also its spiritual and emotional dimension.” A selfless leader is one who is willing to share their knowledge to future generations for the Glory of God.

Part of Bach’s teaching technique included building upon the prior generations of composers and understanding the timelessness of objectively good art. By thinking multi-generationally and not just composing music for the passing style, Bach created a lasting legacy which is just as relevant and affective as when it was written. Working with a view towards the permanent is a reflection of God’s immutability and the covenantal nature of God’s action in history and of his people. Fads and fashions pass away, but those things built on the foundation of the Word of God will last.

Bach’s life illustrates the nature of thinking covenantally and inter-generationally. He was far more successful in leaving an inheritance to subsequent generations than he was in creating change in his own time. Although he stood firm against the secular thought of his day, the fruit of his labors was not fully appreciated for another 70-80 years; however, his influence and example have been incalculable ever since.

Principle #8: Part of leading worship is looking towards the development of subsequent generations of musicians grounded on issues of permanence and with knowledge of the history of Church worship.

Principle #9: Worship leaders should build on the foundation of the past instead of replacing it, relying more on the Biblical notion of craftsmanship rather than the humanist concept of originality.

Fifthly, Sebastian Bach understood the grace of the Gospel and his daily need for that grace. Motivated by an overflowing of love, Bach consistently worked in response to that love through sacrificial service. Bach often started musical scores with J.J. for Jesu Juva (Jesus, help me) and ended them with S.D.G. for Soli Deo Gloria (To the Glory of God Alone). Anyone as talented and gifted as Bach could have turned his art or the perfection of his art into a god or transformed their efforts in legalistic piety. Bach did neither, and his legacy remains as a humble artist fully aware of his need for repentance and rejoicing in the free gift of God’s grace and the promise of eternal life.

Principle 10: Reliance on God’s grace alone—S.D.G.

Bach understood that excellence is its own apologetic of the gospel. All truth is God’s truth. But all beauty is also God’s beauty and all goodness flows from Him as well. The very pursuit of his artistic calling provided, and continues to provide, a rebuke to shallow aesthetics—those things that are transient, temporary, or trendy. The permanent things—those that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise—are profitable to think on. Beauty, finding its source in God and as one of His attributes, reflects the nature and character of God in a powerful and transcendent manner. His adherence to biblical objective standards in his work instilled his music with an ageless quality that secured for him an enduring legacy in succeeding generations.

Having its source in God, true beauty points to the reality of the great Sovereign in a manner the false beauty of the world can never do. Paired with truth and goodness, beauty can excite the “joy” and yearning that C.S. Lewis said set him in search of Christianity.

Worship Leaders: We should pursue craftsmanship and excellence in the calling to lead in worship. Rely not on inspiration but dedicated labor. Flee from the transient fashions of the day which may be momentarily rewarding but which will stagnate your art. Dig deep into the well of scripture and apply it not as a script for your art, but as the very weave of your approach, materials, goals, purpose, content, and work habits. In all things, remain steadfast for the glory of Christ’s kingdom and not your own. The biblical standards and theological motivation behind Bach’s work still resonate to the Church in every era and place.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

How Relevant is Bach, Part III

Thirdly, Bach understood the unique character and content of corporate worship. Although Bach wrote of all his music to the glory of God and in a manner of biblical beauty, he also understood the difference between what was liturgically appropriate and what was better left for Zimmerman’s—the local coffee house and pub. There should be a separation between what is acceptable in a Christian concert versus what we sing in corporate worship. The intent is different; therefore, the lyric content, manner of playing and singing, musical arrangements, and delivery should be different as well. Because we have forfeited suitable venues to express art in the culture from a biblical perspective, we have pulled into worship forms and content that ought not be part of corporate worship. There is an appropriate and needed place for songs about personal spiritual journeys, the joys and sorrows of the Christian life, and the communal fellowship of the saints in covenantal life; however, the truth of these artistic expressions does not necessarily commend them to corporate worship where the emphasis is Almighty God and His nature and character.

The beauty of Zimmerman’s Coffee House in Leipzig was that it created a venue for people from the town to gather in community and to enjoy the culture of their city. Bach worked diligently to create works of beauty for the coffee house, and that venue enabled him to explore musical, lyrical, and thematic elements that expressed the glories of the Christian life but in a manner that would not have been acceptable in church. Bach wrote musical satire, songs about coffee (a suspect beverage at the time) and domestic life, and instrumental music of great virtuosity—including works for four harpsichords and orchestra. While we seek the integrity of corporate worship, we should also encourage the opportunity for expression of artistic gifts in the culture outside of worship.

Principle #6: How a worship leader plays and leads in worship should be different from the playing at a recital, coffeehouse, or concert.

Principle #7: Worship leaders should choose songs and musical arrangements that are ecclesiastically appropriate—what is appropriate in other venues may not be for corporate worship. The criteria for what is ecclesiastically appropriate refers not only to text but also music, the combination of text and music, arrangements, and execution.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

How Relevant is Bach, Part II

Secondly, Bach was a consummate craftsman who sought to perfect his art. He understood that God is the ultimate source and objective standard of beauty. As such, Bach’s desire was to present to God that which was most beautiful. Bach relentlessly pursued knowledge and practice in all areas of his art—from musical exercises and problems to acoustics, instrument design, and metallurgy and woodworking. His goal, though ultimately humanly unattainable, was no less than striving to love God with all his heart, soul, strength, and mind and using and developing his talents to their utmost. Approaching human endeavors with a Godly mindset of excellence or perfection renders a legacy that astounds the watching world.

Reaching towards what was possibly attainable in his art, striving for perfection, being satisfied with nothing less than his best could have made Bach a slave to legalism or a tyrant impatient with the performers of his works. The reason this was not the case, however, was that Bach understood the Reformational teaching sola gratia—by grace alone. Bach’s efforts were a musical offering, a sacrifice of praise, which flowed in grateful response to a loving God. Bach was not trying to win God’s favor or notice; he rested comfortably in God’s love, and his work was the overwhelmed response of a sinner who knows God’s forgiveness. For Bach, striving towards perfection and offering God his best were not a burden, but a joyful expression of thanksgiving and praise.

Principle #3: A worship leader should be a perpetual student of their craft seeking to understand the theological basis of the very inner workings of music.

Principle #4: A worship leader should seek excellence in their work and consistently strive to improve their talents and abilities by growing in skill and depth—musically and theologically.

Principle #5: Worship should be accessible yet excellent.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

How Relevant is Bach to our Contemporary Church

The following is part of an article I wrote for ByFaith magazine:

Johann Sebastian Bach was a musical genius, an intellectual giant, and a gracious man. Bach’s achievement in the area of music is one of the greatest tour de forces in the history of the world⎯on par with, or surpassing, that of Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Dante, Leonardo, Rembrandt, Milton, Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas. Bach was that great and significant. Even more compelling is the fact that he consciously and deliberately wrote all of his music from a Christian perspective and for the Glory of God.

Bach functioned on a multiplicity of levels: he conserved past styles and musical elements but innovated new forms and styles; he crafted his art and brought it to the highest imaginable summit while creating timeless works of beauty; as an artisan, he perfected his art with almost scientific precision while remaining lively and accessible to average listeners; as a communicator, he clearly conveyed a message while simultaneously embedding layers of symbolism⎯musical and extra-musical⎯that require studious inquiry to uncover.

As Hans Rookmakker once wrote, we must bring the Gospel to bear in the time in which God has placed us. Trying to return to a former musical epoch is chronological arrogance—whether it is the 18th century or the 1980’s. However, whether or not you ever sing his music in your church, Sebastian Bach still has much to teach us concerning the role of worship leader as well as a biblical approach to the arts. The principles of his application of the timeless Gospel to the how, why, what, and when of worship are just as appropriate, and needed, today.

Firstly, Bach was a theologian who clearly and firmly understood the Gospel. Bach’s personal understanding of biblical truth resonates throughout his music as he presents sound and weighty doctrine in a manner that challenges the listener to consider issues of the faith. The margin notes he wrote in his personal Bible testify to the depth of Bach’s knowledge and study of scripture and clearly indicate he was a thorough student of scripture—especially as it related to his specific calling. That fact should come as no surprise considering the careful and instructive manner in which he set scripture texts to music and used scripture to comment on other texts.

Bach preached musical sermons of theological complexity that explored the problem of sin and need for redemption as well as the path of grace and the way that Christ has made to fulfill the law and bring true freedom. His are no vague and sentimental works of dubious religiosity, but rather a firm assertion of the doctrines of grace as outlined in Reformation teachings. At the time of securing his position in Leipzig, Bach freely signed a statement indicating that he subscribed to the beliefs of sola Scriptura, sola gratia and sola fide and none other. Bach expressed a real and profound hope in eternal life and the resurrection of Christ. He readily identified himself as a sinner in need of God’s grace and mercy, he looked expectantly for redemption, and he expressed these beliefs through music.

In addition to the gospel-centered content of his vocal music, Bach’s faith and knowledge gave him the courage to stand against the erosion of biblical theology by the ideas of the Enlightenment. This struggle caused him decades of turmoil and strife, but he refused to relinquish his belief in the authority of scripture. After all, as a child of the Reformation, sola Scriptura was the bedrock of his faith—scripture alone as the rule and guide for all of life.
Bach was aware of the cultural trends and ideas of his day that demanded more subjective sensation in music, but he rejected those ideas based on his understanding of scripture.

Principle #1: A worship leader should be a student of Scripture who is constantly seeking to reform their ideas, worship, and aesthetics to the Word of God. God is the standard of beauty and excellence—our worship should seek after biblical excellence and objective beauty, goodness, and truth.

Principle #2: A worship leader should seek to understand the role of music and liturgy in worship in teaching doctrine—not only on a week-by-week basis but in the macrocosm of the life of the church.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Flannery O'Connor "Speaks"

In the June 30/July7 issue of World magazine, there is an “interview” with Flannery O’Connor. Taking excerpts from Mystery and Manners—a masterful collection of essays and talks about her craft as a writer—Marvin Olasky has created an interview of sorts in which he asks questions about fiction writing and Flannery O’Connor “responds” via quotes from her book.

While I am supportive of most anything that gives O’Connor a wider audience, unfortunately the method used in this article makes her seem humorless, didactic, and terse. While the “questions” are good, one cannot help but wonder what else she would have said in addition to the canned response. Another tricky element is that since the answers came before the questions there is a distinct lack of personality.

I say these things because I am a huge fan of Mystery and Manners and O’Connor and I would hate for people to miss the real author amid the quotes. Anybody who raised dozens of peacocks has to have some sense of humor.

O’Connor has much to say about art, writing, reading, and the intersection of faith and aesthetics. Hopefully articles such as this and last year’s Credenda Agenda devoted to her life and writings will create a desire for her work. O’Connor’s stories can sometimes be difficult to handle, but she is always working through grace and faith in the midst of this world.

As she says in her own words: The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make them appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the blind you draw large and startling figures.