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Embarking Blog

...on the journey towards restoration of all things

Filtering by Category: Art

Movies and the Conversation

Tom Elenbaas

Tonight I was able to attend the pre-release of the movie Old Fashioned, and earlier this week I attended the prescreening of Do You Believe? Both are films written and produced by Christians seeking to make good films with an important message that helps change the conversations we're having about everything from relationships to sex to our ultimate destiny. 

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From Nature


[vimeo width="400" height="300"][/vimeo] I've been reading the book Beautiful Outlaw over the last week by John Eldredge. Maybe you've seen some of my tweets. This book is a fabulous read and ranks up there in my library of books that should be read for basic spirituality. Why? Several reasons, but here's one. The book is about the personality of Jesus and his real, tangible relationship with us. Eldredge does an awesome job of helping us to recover a vision of Jesus is that is stripped of religious coverings. It's deconstructive in the best senses of the word.  In an early chapter called, "Is Jesus Really Playful?" John makes something of a profound door opening for me. It's not something I haven't thought about before, but someone it brought me deeper in my thinking not just theologically, but more personally. I've always known that God's qualities can be seen clearly in and through creation - that the Creator is imaged somehow through the things he creates... that his creations "reveal" him. This is clearly written in Paul's letter to the Romans in chapter 1. I've read that a million times, and I've thought about the heart and mind of the artist, and the fact that we are God's poetry (Ephesians). But this is so simple and profound that I've missed it all my life, and am so sad that I have because the richness and beauty of it is overwhelming. Listen how Eldredge puts it:

I was sitting out back yesterday morning sipping coffee, watching the young chipmunks chase one another at breakneck speeds across the deck. One clever daredevil, hoping to get the advantage, jumped up on the fence rail and continued to chase from above, leaping at the last moment upon his littermate like a Hollywood stuntman. This morning one of them adopted a new strategy. The little rascal found an ambush spot, clinging from the side of the house, where he waited for his playmate to wander by unawares; he then pounced, and the two somersaulted off the deck and into the grass, squealing. Only to dash off and do it again. And again. Now - what does this tell us about the personality of Jesus, who created these little dynamos with striped masks and boundless enthusiasm? - John Eldredge, Beautiful Outlaw, p. 19

Throughout the book, John asks simple questions like these about everything from the actions of polar bears, to the soft and sometimes powerful crashing of the waves. What does the gentle whispering of the Aspen, the thundering power of the storm - what do these say about the personality of Jesus? These "qualities" in the created world are qualities that come from our God.

"For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse." -Romans 1:20

There is something profoundly personal and engaging in our relationship with God - in our understanding of him, in our experience of his personality that comes blazing through in every detail of the world around us. How have I missed this deep truth all of these years? This is the power that I feel and sense of God's presence when I read Wordsworth - and now I understand why. He is responding to the personality of God in and through the world he encounters - not to mention every other great poet who ever lived. This is so much better than the "contorted interpretations based upon religiously bizarre images [that] only serve to push Christ further off into the ethosphere." (Eldredge, Ibid, p. 24) No wonder I find myself communing with God so deeply while standing waste deep in the cool water of a small stream in northern Michigan. No wonder my heart leaps when I hear the call of the Loon or the soft covering of a much-needed rainfall while the world is sleeping in a summer of drought. No wonder so many people in so many cultures for so many millenium have been drawn astray to earth-sun-or moon worship. No wonder they say to "Stop and smell the roses." It's not just to enjoy nature, it's to hear God speaking through his most prevalent and present art form given freely and generously to all people everywhere in all times.

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Power and Art


There is an interesting passage in the first chapter of Zechariah that goes like this:

Then I looked up, and there before me were four horns. I asked the angel who was speaking to me, “What are these?” He answered me, “These are the horns that scattered Judah, Israel and Jerusalem.” Then the Lord showed me four craftsmen.  I asked, “What are these coming to do?”  He answered, “These are the horns that scattered Judah so that no one could raise their head, but the craftsmen have come to terrify them and throw down these horns of the nations who lifted up their horns against the land of Judah to scatter its people.”

This is one of those passages we might be tempted to read right through without stopping, thinking, and reflecting. I read this awhile back and was deeply struck by something that I think is very important, and it goes back to my post on an aesthetic apologetic. I'm still thinking a lot about the necessary changes in our apologetic that are necessary for Christians in the world we live in today. I was struck again by this recently when reading about The Rise of New Atheists in Salon. I'm still toying with the idea of two books - the first Beyond Apologetics: offering hope beyond reason and An Aesthetic Apologetic: art, faith, and life. This passage reminds me again of thoughts I've been working on in this vein.

In the Scriptures, the word "horn" refers to power. Here Zechariah is shown 4 powers. There are a lot of interpretations around this - the four powers being ancient powers that scattered Israel and exerted powerful influence or even brutality over their lives. These are often thought to be Babylon, Persia, Greek, and Roman powers. (cf. also Daniel 2 and Nebachadnezzar's dream - probably envisioning these same powers).

However, what interests me here is not so much the end-times interpretation, but the interesting idea that it is the craftsmen who overcome or throw down the horns. In other words, it is the artists, the creatives, the dreamers who overthrow those who use pure power and force. In a world in which (still) the will to power seems to reign (read Syria), it is the creative power of goodness and beauty that ultimately overthrows even brute force. Think for a moment of the terrible beauty of the cross. This most tragic of moments is a creative staging of humility and disgrace that is turned into the most powerful overthrow of evil we can imagine. It is God using - not the horn of power - but the creative power of his unimaginable humility that ultimately overthrows the powers of darkness. It is the power of goodness in the beauty of restoration that comes through death and resurrection that overthrows the horns of power in this world.

I wonder what would happen if we truly believed that we could meet the horns of power with the strength of beauty and truth. Would we see the true power of the craftsman (read "creator" or "artist") overcome the false power of the abuser, the violent dictator, the hegemonic bully?

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Movies by Christians


There have been a number of movies by Christians over the past several years. It seems that the movie industry is taking notice of either a new genre, or a new market. As we get close to Easter, who could forget the firestorm of media attention and box office dollars that The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson generated several years back. Rob Bell broke into the market with the Christian short films, the Nouma Series. Apparently this was a new market that Christians have excelled at, and now it looks like Rob is headed to make his tv series, and has left Mars Hill Church to do so.  I've been privileged to know a few people who are trying to make their way in the film industry as Christians, and its not an easy road. Money is hard to come by, and even harder it seems, are good films. I've watched a number of "Christian films" and been sorely disappointed. One that I was disappointed in is one of the most famous of Christian films - Fireproof. Though I loved the concept and the message, the filming wasn't very good, the acting was rough, and the spirituality was gratuitous and felt contrived. I appreciate the desire to grapple with real life issues, and am thankful for films that are doing so set in the real life, the real world, and with the real people we know. I long for films made by Christians that touch the heart, evoke the imagination, stimulate thinking, challenge assumptions, offer hope, and do so in a way that is as complex a reflection of the year world we live in while still simple threading the power of the gospel through image, music, and evocative storylines. And I also long for Christians who are thoughtful about film in their critiques, rather than being reactionary because a particular formula hasn't been followed. Here is an article about the forthcoming movie, Blue Like Jazz based on Donald Miller's book.  This feels like the same argument we have about CCM (Christian Contemporary Music) back in the 80's and 90's. Subculturizing Christian culture with particular rules and dividing sacred and secular in these unfortunate ways not only divides Christians, but makes us look pretty silly to the world around us. Is that too much to ask?

Maybe. Maybe not. And there are a lot of questions. What makes a Christian film? Is it the actors? The producers? The money behind it? What happens with the proceeds? The truth and beauty portrayed? The story line? Whether or not there is an altar call or clear salvation line by a key actor or actress? This gets to a deeper question about culture that makes my mind sing. What makes Christian anything, and was Christian ever meant to be an adjective... or was it meant to describe the ones who call themselves followers of the Way?

I had a question the other day that someone asked about how our family deals with secular and sacred, or Christian music. I used to talk about that debate a lot, and now that I'm raising kids, we haven't really talked about it much. This question caused me to pause and think about what we do with our kids. Here's what I realized... we aren't teaching our children about "Christian" music, as if some things are baptized and others are not, or that somehow the sacred realm is divided from the secular in clear lines and demarcations. Those of us who live in the real world no better, intuitively. I realized that my reality is that there is good music, and there is bad music. There are good lyrics, and there are bad lyrics. There are ones that are honoring to God, and those that are not. There are great riffs, chord changes, and surprising sub-melodies or sub-texts. Some of these are written by Christians and some are not. God presents himself powerfully in ways that catch us unaware if we are paying enough attention, and we need to pay attention because there is a lot of garbage that's bad for the soul out there. But there is also much beauty, wonder, longing, and even reflexive response to the Creator by those who don't know him, yet.

This is a problem we've been grappling with for a long time - what is Christian, and how do Christians relate with culture. Great questions that require much more thinking, engaging, responding, creating, critiquing, and imagining.

Here are a sampling of some interesting books I've enjoyed on the topic of Christianity, Culture, and Creativity:

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Gum, Geckos, and God Blog Tour pt. 1


Welcome to the Gum, Geckos, and God Blog Tour!  I was delighted to be invited to participate.  I not only enjoyed reading the book, but interacting with Jim has been fun, too.  Jim Speigel is Philosophy Professor at Taylor University in Indiana. (Also, Jim and his wife just launched a new blog as well, called Wisdom and Folly.)  I had a hard time confining my questions, so I asked Jim a series of questions.  I'll be posting a new one every couple of hours, and I hope you find these engaging.  Here's the first installment. Embarking: My question comes from pages 20 and 21.  You are talking there about how you realize that no matter how hard you try, you cannot shield your kids from the evils of life.  Then you talk about Tolkein's Lord of the Rings Trilogy (a favorite of mine as well), the Black Riders, and the intent of "this present darkness" and the rulers of this age to hurt, intimidate, and influence your children against the Kingdom of God.  Then you mention that you didn't realize how your training in philosophy - what you call "the study of wisdom" would prepare you to be a better parent.  The question, then, involves your appropriation here of Tolkein, and later Star Wars and your mention of art and the aesthetic in the spiritual formation of your children (see p. 131).  I love your appropriation of art and aesthetics to develop a creative imagination for what it might be like to in another person's shoes to better live out the Golden Rule.  Throughout the book, we can see clearly your appropriation of both philosophy and your training in biology, but can you tell us a little more about the use of art and aesthetics in such things I imagine as training children in a biblical worldview, increasing their sensibilities to beauty and its malformations, and strengthening them for engagement with the world in which we live?  And beyond children, how can we increase and imaginative vision that boosts morality practically in our churches today?  (By the way, I think such creative imagination and imaginative teaching is seriously missing from our arsenal for a number of cultural reasons, particular in the Protestant and evangelical manifestations of Christian faith.)

SPIEGEL:  The category of beauty is crucial to a Christian worldview, and both adults and Christians should have a strong aesthetic sensibility.  This is so for several reasons.  First, we believe that God is the Cosmic Artist.  He created everything, and he made his creation beautiful.  Now as we struggle to comprehend both God and the nature of the universe, the concept of God as artist will help us in both respects, especially as we encounter confusing or mysterious aspects to the world and the divine nature.  Since good art has many layers of meaning and needs to be interpreted, we can better understand why there would be so much mystery in the world given that God is an artist.  Beauty is often confounding, even in human-made art.  How much more so, then, in divine art?

Second, God himself is beautiful.  Scripture frequently refers to the "glory" of the Lord, but rarely do Christians-especially evangelicals-recognize that the term "glory" is an aesthetic concept.  So when we consider the truth that God does all things for his "glory," we discover that the meaning of everything is ultimately aesthetic-for God to demonstrate the beauty of his being.  It was through reading Jonathan Edwards' The Nature of True Virtue that I came to this realization, and it has transformed the way I think about and apply theology.  I now see, as Edwards points out, that even moral concepts are subcategories of the aesthetic.  For example, virtue is a kind of moral beauty.

Third, God's primary special revelation-the Bible-is itself a work of literary art.  This not only reveals God's high regard for aesthetics but it also implies that a sound biblical hermeneutic must be aesthetically savvy.  And those of us who handle Scripture in a leadership capacity-as theologians, biblical scholars, preachers, youth ministers, etc.-must learn something about aesthetics if we are to maximize our effectiveness.  Minimally, I think this implies that Christian leaders should regularly "consume" good art, in the form of quality music, film, literature, etc.  This point answers your last question, I think.  We, as a church, will develop a stronger "imaginative vision" as we become more aesthetically literate.  Christians should be connoisseurs of all kinds of art forms.  As churches become more aesthetically trained, a number of salutary effects will follow, from increased discernment to greater creative ability among Christian artists themselves.

Finally, to address something you allude to in your question, in Gum, Geckos, and God I explain why aesthetic development is a boon to moral-spiritual development, particularly as regards our ability to apply the Golden Rule.  Since application of this rule requires a strong imagination (as one tries to imagine what it is like to be person X in a certain situation), the more we can develop our imagination, the better we will be at applying the Golden Rule.  Well, of course, this rule is at the heart of a Christian ethic, so it follows that the more imaginatively skilled one is, the more morally mature one will be-other things being equal, of course.  In other words, whatever one's state of moral-spiritual formation, it can only be improved through aesthetic development.  Here we see, then, a strong recommendation for training in the arts and aesthetics.

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Tribute to a Church 1


University Reformed Church 3D ModelFrom January 1, 1999 to August 31, 2005 I served as, first Campus Minister, and later Senior Pastor of a church in Ann Arbor called University Reformed Church.  This church began in 1958/59 with a part time missionary as pastor across the street from the campus of the University of Michigan.  The building was constructed in the early '60's by famous architect Gunnar Birkerts and won a major architectural award then, and again later in 2004 won the Michigan AIA 25 Year Award.  (Here is a pretty cool 3D imaging of the building from which the photo on this page is from.)  The interesting thing about the building was that though it was an award winning building, and quite a feat in many ways (like the fact that the entire building is poured cement), it had a few design issues that caused some ongoing "practical" difficulties (skylights in the 60's, drainage issues, heating).  It was also a very modernistic design architecturally with clean straight lines, stark white walls, vaulted ceilings, and a 4.5 second echo - great for a capello singing.  (I had a conversation with Gunnar at the awards, and he had a very interesting theological take on the architecture of the building - mirroring some of the tiered roof structure of Dutch architecture, and maintaining perfect symetry and beautiful clean, straight lines to represent the intricacies of the Dutch Reformed Theological tradition among other things. Truth be told, I had a love-hate relationship with the building.  Sometimes it felt like people worshipped it for its architecture and placed the "church" as facility above "church" as gathered people of God.  One of the questions I've often asked is about the relative value of church buildings.  For most churches, the building costs a tremendous amount - more than staff, ministry, and missions combined.  I wonder if we wouldn't be better off finding alternative ways of worshipping/ gathering and creative partnerships with local businesses, community centers, etc and using the finances that facilities cost for more missional work.  That is, unless the building itself can become a kind of community center (look for my upcoming post on Cultural Engagement: from Temple to Synagogue).  The current church in which I work has a wonderful facility.  I also have a love-hate relationship with this building.  The debt-load is large.  The ongoing repairs create a virtual sucking sound that promises to be increasingly loud.  We're moving towards missional community center philosophically, and that's good.  But buildings tend to more about us, for us, to make us feel somehow like we've arrived in the community, and yet often they sit empty 6 days of out of the week and merely wall us off from our surroundings.  Recently, the University Reformed Church building was sold to another church (Harvest Mission Community Church) while URC the church is going to live and function differently, starting off in the Michigan Union where the church actually began.  Is it getting back to its roots?  Could this be a redo/ restart?  Will they build a building again?  Should they?  Those are good questions, and as the former pastor, it's not my role to answer them anymore.  Just to ponder them and offer the questions.

In my next post, I'm going to write a true story as a tribute to University Reformed Church - the building.

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