Friday, April 04, 2014

Next Stop: Fuller Theological Seminary (and Texas!)

Dear friends, I am happy to announce that I have accepted the invitation to assume the position of Assistant Professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. I will also serve as the Director of Brehm Texas in Houston, Texas. I not only look forward to joining the community of Fuller in general, I also look forward to joining the community of Fuller Texas in particular and to serving its mission and body of students. I am excited to join the efforts of the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology and the Arts, and, with the Spirit’s help, to advancing Fuller’s commitment to spiritual, academic, and global formation.

In addition to teaching courses in systematic theology, in worship and in the intersection of both disciplines with the arts, I will be heading up a new effort at Fuller's Houston campus to extend the mission of the Brehm Center into Texas and beyond. See Fuller's announcement about this work here.

Frank Burch Brown once wrote that a "case could be made that, ever since the early nineteenth century, if not before, much of the finest art and music of spiritual and theological import—whether popular or highly cultivated—has been created without the Church’s blessing or, indeed, the Church’s knowledge.” Whether this is a fully accurate description of the case, it seems to me that there is enough truth in it to warrant an intentional and substantive investment by an academic institution like Fuller (much like St. Andrews University, Duke Divinity School and Regent College, among others) to serve the purposes of God for the arts.

My hope is that a Brehm Texas effort would benefit educators and seminary students, pastors and ministry leaders, artists and critical observers, and all those who seek a common vocabulary to advance the discussion of the church’s mission in the arts. My hope, as I've stated elsewhere, is that this effort would prod Christians to develop a vision capable of sustaining a long-lasting, fruit-bearing tradition of artmaking for the glory of God in the academy, the church and the world.

I can't wait to teach. I can't wait to research and write books. I can't wait to bring longstanding dreams into reality. I also can't wait to move to Texas; and neither can my family (who has persevered with me throughout this interview process).

The three of us can't wait to find good Texas BBQ and breakfast tacos and swimming pools and tickets to the Houston Rockets and the best route up to Phaedra's parents in Spring, Texas, and to the capital of Blue Bell Ice Cream (Brenham, TX) on our way to see my family in Austin.

Oh, and I can't wait to finish writing my dissertation.

All of which will happen around the summer of 2014 (three months from now).

It is with a gratitude, then, to God as well as to the board, administration and faculty at Fuller seminary for this tremendous opportunity that my family and I anticipate the beginning of a new season of work, friendship and ministry, for Christ and his kingdom.

Why Study at Fuller Texas? from Fuller Theological Seminary on Vimeo.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Artist as steward of physical reality: a photographic record

This is a small photographic and videographic record of the retreat we enjoyed a couple of weeks ago. Trevor Hart, Andrew Nemr and Max Zt were our fabulous guest speakers and performers, and I offer a heartfelt thanks to everybody who took the time to join us. We look forward to another great retreat next May, where Jeremy Begbie and company will be exploring the relationship between art, artists, and the reception of artwork, on the one hand, and the emotions, on the other. Stay tuned.

Unless otherwise identified, all the photographs here come courtesy of Christine Lee Smith, to whom I owe a deep gratitude for taking all these pictures. (This is another way of saying that the two dodgy IPhone pics are mine.) The four videos are ones which I took on my little IPhone. Not super great quality, but the performances were astonishingly good. Do check it out.

Max Zt and Andrew Nemr talking back and forth.

Our good man Trevor Hart reflecting on the Incarnation.

A great panel discussion with Cam Anderson, Trevor, Meaghan Ritchey and Andrew Nemr.

One of Miles Reck's internationally famous gourmet cookies made it to LL.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Nathan Brown poem: "Between Two Artists" + Ira Glass' advice on "something begets something"

This past weekend I heard Steven Purcell read this poem, "Between Two Artists," by Nathan Brown, whom I'd met a few years back at a Laity Lodge retreat. It's such a perfectly witty poem, which imagines a (one-way) conversation between an art critic and God. Nathan, who currently serves as the Poet Laureate of Oklahoma, is a distinguished speaker, musician, photographer, songwriter, and award-winning poet. He is author of eight books, most recently Karma Crisis: New and Selected Poems (2012). His book, Two Tables Over, won the prestigious 2009 Oklahoma Book Award for Poetry given by Oklahoma Center for the Book.

Between Two Artists

Dear God,
I have always admired
your work. And were it not for that,
I wouldn't bother you with this.

But I must say, your installation peice
at the Point Lobos Nature Reserve
above Big Sur simply goes too far.

The Monterey Pines are too tall,
the Cypresses too fanned out
in perfection with trunks tied
to intricate knots that would take
centuries to unravel.

The cliffs appear
superimposed for dramatic effect
with impossible jags giving way
to fairytale caves that burst forth
gushes of blue water like a French soda
topped with cotton candy cream spray.

The crashes of waves and explosions of foam
are too much like a Disney Land ride.
There are too many kinds of birds, too many
varieties of plants, and too much color in both.

In short, it lacks integrity. It does not speak
to the truth of the way things are. And I don't
think viewers will trust or believe its authenticity.

(From Suffer the Little Voices, Greystone Press, Edmond OK 2005)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The habits of six filmmakers

This is great interview with six filmmakers whose names you will probably recognize. In it they discuss having a "voice," the challenges of caring for a family while making movies, the fears of an artist, the need to be fearless about feedback on your art, the role that an audience plays in determining the shape and meaning of your work, the wisdom that comes with years of faithful diligence and that tells you when you should take a break every now and then, formal schooling vs. nonformal schooling, the uniqueness of each person's creative activities, improvisation vs. highly scripted creativity, and more. You can find the whole interview here.

6 Top Directors on Fighting With Studios, Firing Actors and Quitting Film School

In the mid-1990s, Ben Stiller spent some time sleeping on David O. Russell's couch. That's when both were struggling to make a name for themselves and working on Russell's second feature, Flirting With Disaster (1996), in which Stiller starred.

Decades later, they're two of America's most versatile directors -- Stiller, 47, is responsible for this year's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, while Russell, 55, has American Hustle -- but getting there has meant overcoming serious bumps along the way. That's an experience shared by many of the other helmers on this year's Director Roundtable: Gravity's Alfonso Cuaron, 51, The Butler's Lee Daniels, 53, Captain Phillips' Paul Greengrass, 58, and 12 Years a Slave's Steve McQueen, 44.
What's the hardest thing about being a director?
David O. Russell: To not know what your inspiration is. And that was hardest for me about 10 years ago. I was very humbled to sort of lose my way after Three Kings, in my personal life and in my professional life, and it really made me a better filmmaker and, I think, a better person. I feel I found a kind of story with a kind of character that's been three movies deep now -- The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle.
Paul Greengrass: That kind of crisis, directors don't talk about enough. I had the same. I had a real problem trying to marry up where I began, which was in documentaries, with features. When I got into my 40s, I had a real crisis, 'cause I felt I'd lost touch with what had got me shooting in the first place. I'd spent 10 years making films and getting further and further away from my point of view. And the funny thing is, it felt like I was getting worse. And it was only when I had to go through that struggle, that crisis, over a number of films [that I found] what was truly inside. You suddenly feel free.
Russell: Yes. You're clear what you want to say. There's nothing worse than wanting to tell a story or sing a song and not knowing how to do it. And when I was younger, that was true. It's very frustrating to want to do something and not know how to do it. And then when you find it, it's liberating.
Steve McQueen: How did you get lost?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Theologically Sound Eulogy: Or why Aaron Sorkin got Philip Hoffman right

Anybody who has sat in on my discussions of worship at Duke has heard me talk about the importance of theologically intelligent eulogies. It is something, admittedly, that I tend to get worked up about. To state the obvious, funerals like weddings in our society are markedly evacuated of a distinctly Christian ethos. By ethos I mean both form and content, not simply the latter, because it is usually the way things are done that shape or misshape us most, not just what is said. With both weddings and funerals the chief priority, culturally and perhaps simplistically speaking, is to be nice: be nice to the wedded couple, be nice to the dead person. With both events likewise the focus is on the individual: their wedded thing, their marital responsibility, not ours; their death, their end, not ours.  Once the event is concluded, we are free to get on with our lives.

In sharp contrast, a Christian ethos sees both ceremonies as corporate acts of discipleship. Their joy is our joy. Their death is our death. Their responsibility to marry and to die well to is ours too. Put otherwise, their marriage and their death, their beginnings and their endings, are our common vocation long after the events have finished, because the Body of Christ is indivisible and catholic, implicating every member, at all times, in every place. Your business is my business, and it is our business together because it is Christ's business to form us into a people capable of bearing out his image, which our Good Shepherd knows is only possible by the empowering presence of his Spirit.

Even if churches enact a biblically sound, historically and ecclesiologically thoughtful funeral, there is still a sense, I argue, that the eulogy escapes theological scrutiny. Several questions need asking:

What does it mean to speak a good word? What does it mean to speak a good word about a human life? "Good" in what sense? "Human" on what terms?

What is the purpose of the eulogy for the dearly departed? What is the purpose for the one giving it or for the people who hear it?

What does the biblical narrative teach us about speaking good words? How do the Scriptures narrate a life? How has church history narrated, rightly or wrongly, the lives of the saints, that is, all who have owned the name of Christ?

In what sense must the witnesses hear the whole truth about a person's life in order to perceive the whole grace of God in that person's life?

What is the worst that could happen if we heard the whole truth, in précis form, about a person's life? What is the best that could happen if we heard the whole truth?

How would we go about learning how to craft and give true eulogies? How would we go about learning how to receive and respond to such eulogies?

Lastly, what is the good news for the church and the world that may come out of the mixed, but possibly also hopeful, news of a person's life?

If you have been in my class, you have heard me talk about Orson Scott Card's novel Speaker for the Dead, the sequel to Ender's Game. (The EG book version is of course a thousand times better than the movie.) I learned more about the nature of a proper eulogy from Card's novel, in its own literary, allusive way, than I have from anything else I have read--which is nil, I regret to say. I recommend it to all pastors, minsters and teachers, and anybody else interested in exploring this topic.

I will also recommend Aaron Sorkin's eulogy for Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the greatest actors of his generation. Originally appearing in TIME magazine, Sorkin's remembrance of Hoffman's life stood out from all the other pieces I read the week that Hoffman died of a heroin overdose. Sorkin spoke lovingly but he also spoke truthfully, which I imagine someone could only do if they genuinely loved the person who had died. Some responded to PSH's death with utter shock. Others were outraged. Others turned to practical advice, while still others expressed a kind of pathetic fatalism about the tenacity of human sin.

Sorkin said things that needed to be said, not just for his own sake, not just for Hoffman's sake or his family's sake, but for our sake too. We needed to hear these words. We still do. They are the only sort of words that set the soul right, at peace, in good order, while also opening up the possibility of owning one's life in equal measure, with complete responsibility, in fearless honesty. The only thing that would have made Sorkin's eulogy more recognizably Christian, to my mind, is mention of the communal responsibility for Philip Seymour Hoffman, in death and in life. His life, like my life and like your life, is our business, and the way that men and women are practically saved from succumbing to the powers of sin is by getting in to their business and by trusting that Christ by his Spirit will raise us up to his holy and hale business too.

Phil Hoffman and I had two things in common. We were both fathers of young children, and we were both recovering drug addicts. Of course I’d known Phil’s work for a long time — since his remarkably perfect film debut as a privileged, cowardly prep-school kid in Scent of a Woman — but I’d never met him until the first table read for Charlie Wilson’s War, in which he’d been cast as Gust Avrakotos, a working-class CIA agent who’d fallen out of favor with his Ivy League colleagues. A 180-degree turn.

On breaks during rehearsals, we would sometimes slip outside our soundstage on the Paramount lot and get to swapping stories. It’s not unusual to have these mini-AA meetings — people like us are the only ones to whom tales of insanity don’t sound insane. “Yeah, I used to do that.” I told him I felt lucky because I’m squeamish and can’t handle needles. He told me to stay squeamish. And he said this: “If one of us dies of an overdose, probably 10 people who were about to won’t.” He meant that our deaths would make news and maybe scare someone clean.

So it’s in that spirit that I’d like to say this: Phil Hoffman, this kind, decent, magnificent, thunderous actor, who was never outwardly “right” for any role but who completely dominated the real estate upon which every one of his characters walked, did not die from an overdose of heroin — he died from heroin. We should stop implying that if he’d just taken the proper amount then everything would have been fine.

He didn’t die because he was partying too hard or because he was depressed — he died because he was an addict on a day of the week with a y in it. He’ll have his well-earned legacy — his Willy Loman that belongs on the same shelf with Lee J. Cobb’s and Dustin Hoffman’s, his Jamie Tyrone, his Truman Capote and his Academy Award. Let’s add to that 10 people who were about to die who won’t now.

(Sorkin is an Academy Award–winning writer who wrote the screenplays for two of Hoffman’s films: Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) and Moneyball (2011).)

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Wendell Berry on the Human Body

"Our bodies are part of the Creation, and they involve us in all the issues of mystery." -- Wendell Berry

As I anticipate our upcoming Laity Lodge retreat, "Artists as Stewards of Physical Reality," I am reminded of this excellent essay by Wendell Berry, "The Body and the Earth." I commend the whole essay, which can be found in his book The Art of the Commonplacefrom which I choose the following excerpts.

Question: "How does a human pass through youth to maturity without 'breaking down'?" 

Answer: "[With the] help from tradition, through ceremonies and rituals, rites of passage at the most difficult stages."

The difficulty probably lies in our narrowed understanding of the word health. That there is some connection between how we feel and what we eat, between our bodies and the earth, is acknowledged when we say that we must "eat right to keep fit" or that we should eat "a balanced diet." But by health we mean little more than how we feel. We are healthy, we think, if we do not feel any pain or too much pain, and if we are strong enough to do our work. But the concept of health is rooted in the concept of wholeness. To be healthy is to be whole. 

The word health belongs to a family of words, a listing of which will suggest how far the consideration of health must carry us: heal, whole, wholesome, hale, hallow, holy. And so it is possible to give a definition to health that is positive and far more elaborate than that given to it by most medical doctors and the officers of public health.

If the body is healthy, then it is whole. But how can it be whole and yet be dependent, as it obviously is, upon other bodies and upon the earth, upon all the rest of Creation, in fact? It immediately becomes clear that the health or wholeness of the body is a vast subject, and that to preserve it calls for a vast enterprise. Blake said that "Man has no Body distinct from his Soul..." and thus acknowledged the convergence of health and holiness. 

In that, all the convergences and dependences of Creation are surely implied. Our bodies are also not distinct from the bodies of other people, on which they depend in a complexity of ways from biological to spiritual. They are not distinct from the bodies of plants and animals, with which we are involved in the cycles of feeding and in the intricate companionships of ecological systems and of the spirit. They are not distinct from the earth, the sun and moon, and the other heavenly bodies.

It is therefore absurd to approach the subject of health piecemeal with a departmentalized band of specialists. A medical doctor uninterested in nutrition, in agriculture, in the wholesomeness of mind and spirit is as absurd as a farmer who is uninterested in health. Our fragmentation of this subject cannot be our cure, because it is our disease. 

The body cannot be whole alone. Persons cannot be whole alone. It is wrong to think that bodily health is compatible with spiritual confusion or cultural disorder, or with polluted air and water or impoverished soil. Intellectually, we know that these patterns of interdependence exist; we understand them better now perhaps than we ever have before; yet modern social and cultural patterns contradict them and make it difficult or impossible to honor them in practice. To try to heal the body alone is to collaborate in the destruction of the body. 

Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of loneliness. Conviviality is heating. To be healed we must come with all the other creatures to the feast of Creation.

Divided, set against each other, body and soul drive each other to extremes of misapprehension and folly. Nothing could be more absurd than to despise the body and yet yearn for its resurrection. In reaction to this supposedly religious attitude, we get, not reverence or respect for the body, but another kind of contempt: the desire to comfort and indulge the body with equal disregard for its health. 

The "dialogue of body and soul" in our time is being carried on between those who despise the body for the sake of its resurrection and those, diseased by bodily extravagance and lack of exercise, who nevertheless desire longevity above all things. These think that they oppose each other, and yet they could not exist apart. They are locked in a conflict that is really their collaboration in the destruction of soul and body both.

The Bible's aim, as I read it ' is not the freeing of the spirit from the world. It is the handbook of their interaction. It says that they cannot be divided; that their mutuality, their unity, is inescapable; that they are not reconciled in division, but in harmony. What else can be meant by the resurrection of the body? 

Body, soul (or mind or spirit), community, and world are all susceptible to each other's influence, and they are all conductors of each other's influence. The body is damaged by the bewilderment of the spirit, and it conducts the influence of that bewilderment into the earth, the earth conducts it into the community, and so on. If a farmer fails to understand what health is, his farm becomes unhealthy; it produces unhealthy food, which damages the health of the community.

Though many people, in health, are beautiful, very few resemble these models. The result is widespread suffering that does immeasurable damage both to individual persons and to the society as a whole. The result is another absurd pseudo-ritual, "accepting one's body," which may take years or may be the distraction of a lifetime. Woe to the man who is short or skinny or bald. Woe to the man with a big nose. 

Woe, above all, to the woman with small breasts or a muscular body or strong features; Homer and Solomon might have thought her beautiful, but she will see her own beauty only by a difficult rebellion. And like the crisis of identity, this crisis of the body brings a helpless dependence on cures. One spends one's life dressing and "making up" to compensate for one's supposed deficiencies. Again, the cure preserves the disease. And the putative healer is the guru of style and beauty aid. 

The sufferer is by definition a customer.