Monday, October 31, 2005

Continuing the “Ugliness” Conversation: the Edification Principle

I’m soon wrapping up this series on ugliness, but I want to touch on a remark made in the comments section. (By the way, to everyone who comments on my blogs, I want to say a sincere “thank you.” I do appreciate your readership and your interaction with my material. I don’t write back to comments, but I do read them, and they are an encouragement. Feel free to comment!) A thoughtful person noted in the midst of last week’s section that an important principle to remember in this discussion is that of edification. This is relevant because we can spend all kinds of time discussing our opinions on what to engage in the culture and miss the Bible’s. For an evangelical, the Bible is the standard. It is the only opinion that ultimately counts.
So the idea that we should seek out what edifies is helpful. There is only one problem. It is not immediately apparent what is edifying and what is not in this world. That may surprise some of us. Evangelical Christians are accustomed to contrasts and clarity. We do less well with the blurry areas of life. When we must wander into such territory, our responses range from panicked worry to negligent malaise. On the first response, there are some among us who exhibit the “hummingbird effect” when we encounter the moral fog that sometimes wraps around us. Searching frantically for the clarity that so comforts and protects us, we flit here and there, seeking the absolutes that typically guide our steps. Our hair-trigger consciences fire away at us, landing more shots than they miss.

Others of the evangelical stamp go a different way in the “fog.” Unaccustomed to conscionable decision-making, they settle into the environment, turning off the senses. This malaise is supported by the antinomian’s life principle, “we are free in Christ,” which functions as an untrumpable presupposition. One can invoke this as at any time and instantly silence all conversation over moral questions, usually to the effect of a red face on the part of the one trying to think responsibly through the quandary. So far from a hair-trigger conscience, the moral switch is unquestionably “off.”

Both ways of thinking are problematic, and both are common. Both would be helped by a close look at what is truly edifying. The first would likely be calmed by such analysis and find grace once unseen. The second would likely be awakened from an ethical slumber and find purpose once unclaimed. What, then, does it mean to be “edifying?”

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Is There a Way to Do Ugliness Well?

In the previous discussion, I quickly established that Christians in the movies ought not to do sins in performance that are wrong in real life. I also noted that they ought not to give a positive impression of sin in their acting (or directing, or screenwriting, etc). With that established, however, a question remains as to whether there is not still room for Christians to show the ugliness of this world in pointing it to Christ.

The question is a difficult one to grab ahold of in totality, simply because there is no book of rules that says what one may and may not artistically do. That said, there is great benefit in ripping away the false perfection of this world and showing people the biblical reality of our planet. We are ugly to our core, and the world represents this. Though we try to paint everything in pastels, underneath it all is a coat of mud. This is not a fundamentally good and happy place; it is earthy, and ugly, and stinky. It includes mothers who toss their children into harbors, doctors who kill those dependent on their care, fathers who pay to have the brains of their seed vacuumed out. Who are we kidding? This is a wretched place.

To teach the world this, it seems that we may with discernment portray our collective condition as it truly is in films. Christians may thus write scripts and books and poems that speak to the great illness of our planet. We may show the effects of sin, exposing them to eyes that seek only escapism and pleasure. There is great good in performances and plays and poems that include characters and dialogue that explores the depths of depravity and that use ugliness to do so. Christians must be careful in doing so--but they must do so. Who else will, at least from a standpoint that also includes the hope of redemption and the reality of God?

We cannot shrink back from this culture. We must engage it. We must know it. We must be separate from it. We must accurately portray it. And we must speak grace to it. It will be very difficult to do this last part, one that so many Christians thankfully believe in, if we do not do the first, which so many Christians do not believe in. May God bring new insight, discernment, and passion to engage our world to His people.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Ugliness in Hollywood

But even as I wrote that Christians shouldn’t curse and have sex in films, I’m thinking about the seeming sinfulness of being angry, killing another person, or stealing. Should a Christian steal in a film? Couldn’t one say that as there is no difference between having sex in real life and film, there’s none between stealing in the movies and doing so in real life?

One could say this, but one would be wrong. If one has sex on set, this is objectively wrong, unless it’s done with one’s spouse, and that’s not likely in Hollywood. (And even then, it's quite questionable.) However, the real world in this case is the film, and vice versa. If, however, one steals in a film, one has not really stolen anything. One has pretended to do so. So there’s clearly a line between some actions and others in considering what Christians can/should do in films.

But one could respond to this by noting that even if the stealing is pretend, if the movie presents the action in anything but a negative light, the Christian is wrong to do so, because their performance gives a positive light to sin. This is clearly a problem. So, then, it would seem to be important that Christians in Hollywood avoid doing “real-life” ugliness and also that they avoid positive depictions of sin. Movies seek to draw audiences. We must remember that. But more than a sea of nameless faces, there is One watching us at all times whose review is the only one that really counts.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Ugliness Next Door, Part Two

I want to go in a slightly different direction with this conversation. I’ve covered briefly the issues involved in watching ugliness. But what about Christians actually making ugliness? This is by all accounts a tricky issue, and I don’t pretend to have quick answers or to let on that I even know what I think. I do wish, however, to engage and think this through.

Much has been made in recent years of Christians in Hollywood. Cover stories in World and Relevant magazine have brought the matter to the minds of a readership that probably has not devoted much thought to it in the past. Christians have generally divided into three camps—one ignoring and decrying Hollywood, the second embracing it without thought, the third a mixture of the two. The first thinks, generally, that it is bad for Christians to be involved in Hollywood. The second pays little mind because they love Hollywood regardless of whether faith is represented in it. The third is encouraged by the presence of Christians in a pagan scene because it wants the gospel to go to all. There is more, though. What exactly do those Christians do in Hollywood? The contemporary movie scene is almost without exception covered in filth. Aren’t Christians supposed to stay clean of it? How on earth do they do so? Do they do so?

For the purpose of space, I’m going to skip ahead and address these questions. I’m pretty comfortable saying that Christians should not swear or engage in behaviors in movies they would not do in real life. I can’t think of an exception to this, though there could be one out there. At this point, though, I’m quite sure that Christians ought NOT to actually be cursing, having sex, and doing such things. I’ll continue this tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Ugliness Next Door

Let’s continue this. The culture is out there. It’s interesting, it’s fun, it’s informative, it’s enriching. Potentially, that is. If we can find out how to engage it. Or should we?

One option before Christians is to withdraw and isolate ourselves from the culture. At least, as best as we can. This has traditionally meant such steps as removing a tv, not having a computer or having a very limited one, almost never going to movies, and ignoring the fine arts altogether. Tv’s all bad, computers breed bad eyes and foul minds, movies arouse emotions, especially bad ones, and the fine arts are boring, er, ineffectual. This is a caricature, of course. There is much trash on tv, computers, the movies, and the fine arts are boring. But does the simple presence of ugliness in a forum require us, or call us, to reject it out-of-hand?

Let’s think through this with a cinematic example. Watching people die on movie screens is ugly to me. It strikes me as slightly odd that I draw enjoyment from watching people die. I’m not saying that this is wrong, but merely that I find it slightly unsettling that my friends and I think watching people die on screen is entertainment. But I can live with a slight unsettledness. One reason I can do so is that movies can, despite depicting the terribleness of death, tell powerful and virtuous stories. Think of “Saving Private Ryan.” That’s a very graphic and violent movie. It’s ugly in that shows men killing other men as collective will meets collective will in a bloody collision. The ugliness is palpable and moving. I had tears in my eyes upon first seeing it and still am affected by the film. This is partly because I know that the film speaks truly about war. Despite the fact that its story is violent, the film is worthwhile as it shows the value of sacrifice and courage.

Though it is terrible to watch men fall by the bullet, it is also terrible to live in ignorance of their sacrifice. In this world, truth, good, and beauty often hide beneath, or lie beside, the foul and filth only sin can produce.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Toward a Definition of Ugliness

We began a discussion yesterday on a question that has long played in my mind. I introduced the question of “ugliness” but did little to define it. I did so for a purpose: I wanted to get any readers I do have to think for themselves about a definition of ugliness. I happen to like the term for this conversation, because I think it can cover a wide range of earthly trappings. Swearing. Death. Drugs. Sex. Violence. Atheism. Epicureanism. Nihilism. All these and more are ugly to me. And yet though I find each deplorable, I am aware that as long as the earth turns, such will exist. This is our shared fate.

This, then, is my definition of ugliness: that which carries none of the beauty and goodness and truth inherent in God-formed things. Let’s plug senseless death into this definition. In the film “Mr. And Mrs. Smith,” Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie play hit-person (that’s clunky) characters who end up killing lots of people. The film is light-hearted, or at least tries to be, and so portrays the deaths of many, many people in very light-hearted ways. At numerous points in my viewing of the film, the audience laughed hard at the deaths of minor characters. I found this disturbing. I found it ugly. Such depiction of death carried no gravity, no sense of the preciousness of life. Bodies, and their persons, existed simply to exist no longer. Granted, this is the movies. But that doesn’t mean it’s not ugly.

Ugliness, then, is that which does not lift up the soul, which is not based in truth, which is the opposite of beauty, which does not promote what is good and right. This is my flowing, working definition of ugliness. With it established, we can probe further into the question at hand: how do we deal with ugliness in the culture that surrounds us?

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Should Christians View Ugliness?

Here’s something to think about: as a Christian committed to a life of holiness, how should one deal with the ugliness of this world, particularly as pictured in the arts? Speaking as a Christian, this is a difficult question to wrestle with. In the last five years of my life, I’ve transitioned out of a fundamentalistic refusal to watch movies to a posture of cautious openness to viewing all types of movies.

I believe that this openness represents some type of maturation on my part, because it’s somewhat naïve to think that one can avoid ugliness altogether in this life. Additionally, accepting the Reformed teaching that all truth is God’s truth, and that Christians are separate from the world but must study and engage it, I am comfortable interacting with the arts—secular music, movies, literature, and artwork. I can do so because I don’t believe it’s a sin simply to see or hear ugliness, but that the key issue is how such material affects one. In other words, if watching a movie with profanity causes me to curse more, I should be very careful about watching it. Or take sex—if a film has explicit sexual content and that causes me to sin, I’m going to need to choose whether or not I watch that video by careful discernment. One does as a believer not to check off little righteousness boxes, but to care for one’s soul, to keep it healthy and fresh and Godward.

That said, the title question is by no means answered. The pieces this week will continue to explore this important question. Christians are here in this world. The question is this: how will we be here? Saying we are salt and light is one thing. Being it is another.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Food and Butter

It seems to me that Americans are fixated on butter. Here are a number of butter-related items commonly consumed.

1) Apple butter
2) Green beans cooked in butter
3) Apple pie crust
4) Ice cream
5) Chocolate chip cookies
6) Milk
7) Banana Pudding
8) Rolls and butter
9) Pizza crust
10) Baklava
11) Cinnamon rolls

So some of the thinking behind this post is this: many times, when we think something tastes good, it's related to butter. Butter is the X factor. It makes food taste smooth and rich. In short, to use butter alot in cooking is to cheat somewhat. Rather than cooking with subtlety, one simply slaps on the butter and--presto--it's all gravy. Actually, I bet gravy has butter in it as well.

So there's my conspiracy theory--butter is often behind good tasting food.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Final Fall Reminisces

I remember the races. I remember going out too fast in the County Championship my senior year. I was the favorite to win going in and lost the race by starting the race at a pace my father had cautioned me against going. His warning became a prophecy when I was passed at the last hill. That hurt, and still twinges a bit.

I always flamed out at the end of the season. Started great, ended poorly. That’s the way three seasons went. Oh well. That’s the past, right?

I remember papers and Mrs. Beaulieau’s English classes and the excitement of upcoming basketball seasons. I remember going to the gym at the University of Maine at Machias to play basketball and hang out with the men’s basketball team as best I could. How I wanted to be one of them. Over time, I forged many friendships with them, got to know them personally, lost to them often in one-on-one, and even won a few. Sweet days, those.

Fall was a time of drama, acting in plays. I remember late nights at UMM working on the college’s production of “Oliver Twist.” I won the role of Oliver, and had a ball in the role. Sold-out performances in the Performing Arts Center, one of my first crushes, the after-show cast party. Singing “Where is Love” and afterwards finding the power to make my sister and mother cry on the spot at its singing. I loved acting.

This, and more, is fall. A bustling season, an exciting season, a time of much change. Pleasant, bittersweet, exciting. Gone now, but remembered.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Fall Reminisces, Part Two

Fall is also a time of family. I have many memories of fall days spent with family. Driving to the summer cottage to shut it up for winter. Discussing the race with Mom and Dad. Traveling to Trinity in Connecticut, Amherst in Massachusetts, Harvard in Cambridge, Colby in Waterville, Maine, Bowdoin in Brunswick, Maine, Bates in Lewiston, Maine, Gordon in Massachusetts. Memories were forged on these trips that I’ll always remember. In Hartford, getting via Mom’s kindness to Uconn’s Midnight Madness in 1999, the year they won it all for the first time. In Cambridge, hearing Al Franken (no joke) relentlessly question an Admissions staffer on the calculation of SAT scores. At Bowdoin, falling in love with the pines, the buildings, the academic setting. Deciding on a college was quite an ordeal, but it was a delightful one.
Completing the applications to these schools was not delightful. Only by the temerity of my mother did I finish them. She laid them all out on the dining room table and wrote up what I needed to do to finish each one. With complaining, I eventually completed them.

I remember pasta dinners with the family on the Friday nights before cross country races. Pasta and Prego, Pepperidge Farm garlic bread, and milk. The champion’s meal. Actually, I don’t know what the champion’s meal was, cause I was never the champion. Oh well. I loved that meal. We all ate together, Mom, Dad, and Rachel, and those were sweet times. Family is a key part of fall for America. This held true for my family.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Fall Reminisces, Part 1

Fall is my favorite season. I feel slightly trite writing that, because favorite is so often connected with nothing more than appetite. “I love Sunkist—it’s my favorite.” There’s sometimes precious little behind our “favorites.” There is much, however, behind my affection for fall, and some is worth unspooling here.

Fall brings to mind cross country meets in high school. For those who don’t know, cross country meets are one of the more engrossing athletic events. You wouldn’t think so, would you? I bet most reading this doubt this assertion despite my protestation. I must only press you to consider again this matter. It’s just running, right? Point A to point B, legs doing what they should, break the tape and go home. WRONG. Cross country pictures man in his athletic essence. All is stripped away. No pads, no time outs, no substitutions, no commercial breaks, no stopping. Raw, painful effort represents the heart of cross country. 3.1 miles as fast as possible over hills and treacherous terrain. Fans screaming, coaches imploring runners to move up for the sake of the team. The will stands naked. Nothing else can help. It is simply a matter of mental strength. It’s brutal, it’s messy, it’s charged, it’s awesome. It hurts like crazy. I detested the feeling I got before races. There’s nothing like knowing you’re going to go out and run your body into the ground. You’re going to run until you can’t stand. Let me tell you, that puts butterflies in the stomach. Even as I type this, I can feel those old sensations, coupled with the desire to do well, the strategy set out for me by my father and I, the rivalries intense and boiling as we stepped to the starting line. It’s glorious, and it’s unlike any other event. Most of all, cross country belongs to fall, and so I churn with all of the above when fall comes.

Fall is a season of great change, or rather as the season before great change comes. To think of it another way, the great change is dependent on what happens in fall. Think of college applications. They go out in fall. What a process this is! It’s incredible to think of. One thumbs through the review books and rankings and recommendations and letters. One studies hard for the first time in one’s life for tests that will determine which level one gets to play at. One goes to the campuses, takes endless tours, eats college food, attempts to evaluate whole institutions, which as a wide-eyed seventeen year-old is quite a venture. One then sweats through the admission process. The mail is checked. Nails are bitten. Hopes are crushed. Hopes are fulfilled. Tears and anger hit the pillow; exultation nearly hits the roof. Then it’s time to decide between one’s schools. More visits, much evaluation, much excitement. Then the day of decision, and announcement, and the buying of paraphernalia. All this began in the fall. Great change begins in the fall.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Fall: America’s Season

Why do I say that fall is America’s season? Easy. Here are two reasons.

Football—Though I am not a pigskin fanatic, many are. A huge chunk of Americans love college and pro football, each of which run from August to January. There is great psychic satisfaction in football. One roots for a team and becomes part of something larger, a natural inclination of the soul. We want to be part of something larger. And so you have fifty year-old men who haven’t seen a pair of tennis shoes in weeks talking with one another about their team as if they’re headed to the practice field or, more likely, the coaches’ box. I must say that I enjoy this aspect of football fandom, because there is something, within limits, that is nice to see about participation in something larger than oneself. In place of isolation, we seek community, responding to a natural and good instinct toward fellowship.

Thanksgiving—This is bound up with the above, but there are other reasons why Thanksgiving makes fall the nation’s season. Interestingly, it also involves community, though this time within the context of family. With Christmas and its satisfied happiness approaching, the promise of good food, and the company of loved ones, we flock to Thanksgiving, crowding airports and highways in the process. Thanksgiving is first and foremost about family, and a primacy on family is a very American thing, and that helps make Thanksgiving a key part of fall and a major reason why we love fall so much. What in spring is about family, for example?
There are other things I could list, but I think I’ll stop here, and post tomorrow some general personal reflections on fall.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Fall's Sad Beauty

I’ve wanted to write a post about fall for a long time. Why? Because fall is such an evocative season. Nothing provokes more response from us than the changing of the foliage, an annual testimony to the presence of great beauty in our world. Tourists travel, locals marvel, all the world stops for a time to take in the canvas of nature.

How ironic it is, then, that leaves descend to the soil at their aesthetic height. Once the processes of nature clothe them in vibrancy, the leaves fall. At their peak, they bid farewell to their roots and die. From there, they become fodder for broken rakes and flushed faces, relegated to piles clustered around browning lawns. Worse yet, they fall into the road, where tires muddy them. Their roots lost, their beauty obscured, they decompose. Slowly they become little pieces of nothing. Once disposed of, they are forgotten altogether. Winter’s frost and snow bury them from sight and mind. Beauty meets its end.

Isn’t this the pattern of life? The created order comes to its peak, only to plummet. Rise, fall, forgotten. I see this everywhere. And yet I see one who has overcome this sad movement. The Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, played this losing game and won. He was subjected to the code, to the crescendo and the fall, and yet He did the inconceivable: He broke the system. We await His return and the beginning of a season that does not pass when we will know Him as He is in the new creation. Then, we will gaze, awestruck, and the moment will endure.

Friday, October 07, 2005

More on Preaching in Music

Yesterday's post got a firestorm of response for this blog: two comments! Whew. I almost didn't know what to do with myself, but I took a few hours to sort through it all. Here are some concluding remarks on my rather controversial remark of yesterday.

I want to affirm wholeheartedly that I am for the inclusion of all kinds of biblical truths in music. Much of the music I listen to on a daily basis is rich with Scripture and interpretations of Scripture. My comment, then, refers to the way in which one presents content, not so much with the content itself. In music, it seems, telling a story fits better with the genre than does merely reciting content. This is not to say that I do not sometimes enjoy listening to sermonic music. There are times when such art is just what is needed. But on the whole, I would say that music, and the messages that artists communicate through music, are fitted well for metaphor. Artists, even Christian artists, don't often put a sermon to melody. Instead, they will take an idea, or set of ideas, a doctrine even, and then express it by using images and telling stories. This seems a natural part of verbal music.

I love hearing Scripture pictured and even expounded in music. But the most effective way to do so in music seems to be to mix in rich images, metaphors, and stories that bring poetry to the truth or idea one is considering. We don't simply sing "As a Christian, I want to go to heaven but it's not time yet/Because the sovereign will of God has not determined that it be so." Rather, we sing, "On Jordan's stormy banks I stand, and cast a wishful eye/To Cana's fair and happy land, where my possessions lie." Both of these verses express Christian truth. But one mixes in moving images and poetic language. This is but one example of many I find that speaks to me that music is better suited to poetic expression than dogmatic utterance. Don't get that wrong--we still express dogma, but we do so with poetry and story. In this we see a part of creation's beauty. We are not confined to indicative statements, but can communicate deeply through the language of the heart.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Preaching in Music: Good or Bad?

Something I've noticed in my own listening taste is that I often prefer to listen to an artist's reflections on life rather than their personal interpretation of life. I ought to say right off the bat that I'm not referring here to music sung in the context of a church, which is in itself a unique musical experience. Church music has a particular function, and I wholeheartedly commend both the function and much of the music that expresses it. I'm referring in this blog to the music one listens to in one's free time--on the bus, while cleaning, while exercising. In such settings, it seems, description, not prescription, fits best.

This is a big statement, I know, and I'm sure even as I write this that it's not as much of an absolute as I'm making it to be. That said, I do stand by this assertion. People often object to "preachy" Christian music, and while I think they usually object primarily to the content, they have something of a point. Music and preachiness just don't mix that well. Music seems to be at its best when it describes, when it reflects poetically on the world, when it digs into the stuff of life to unearth new philosophical insights and emotional experiences. It is in such territory that songwriting flourishes. We go to other territories to be commanded, rebuked, and challenged, but we draft music into our lives primarily to console and understand ourselves. The dogmatic simply doesn't fit as well with everyday music as it does in such things as speeches and addresses. In music, it is primarily description that drives our interest, for this is the unique role of music in the setting of life.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Musicians are the First Psychologists

Sorry about the delay in posting. It's midterm week at Southern Seminary, and I've been caught in the undertow. But I've resurfaced, and pledge to do better. In thinking about the role that musicians play in society, it has occurred to me that part of what keeps them in business is that they can, at times, express keen insight into the human condition. Though we may appreciate verbal music for its rhythm, flow of words, and lilt, verbal music offers us an interpretation, a sideways depiction, of the world. I'm not sure that many of us think of this consciously. It's likely that if you stopped the average person on the street listening to some grab bag of Itunes (we're all so pleased with our musical diversity) and asked them what music does for them, they would not say it interprets the human condition. They might say something about how they like the way the music sounds, it fits their mood, or some such thing. It would surprise me if they mentioned anything to do with insightful analysis of the human experience.

But this is much of what naturally draws us to music. I've observed this in my own life. At home, I put on music that fits my mood--but I don't think this is primarily because of sound. I think it's primarily because the words I hear express my feelings and offer something of an emotional mirror in which I can process them. Musicians can sympathize with us, encourage us, discourage us, rebuke us, but primarily, they are just with us. They are at our side, and most of them do not in fact try to bowl us over with dogma or directive. It would seem that this is why many people go to a bar to drink beer. There's usually some fairly melancholy singer partly disillusioned by years of unrealized dreams who sings softly about, well, unrealized dreams and beer. Many see their stories in such songs. In listening, their life is interpreted for them and they are understood. Is this not what psychologists do for us? They listen, sit by our side (often expensively), and then process for us who we are, what we are doing, and why we are doing it. Far from being mere background noise, then, musicians are our first-level interpreters, those who piece together the world for us as we walk the miles out.

(tomorrow--why teaching and music can be an awkward mix)