Monthly Archives: May 2010

Generous to a Fault

I picked up this classic a couple days ago for fifty cents at my favorite thrift store and decided to try to finish it before flying to Germany for six weeks. Pere Goriot (Father Goriot) is a tragic story of a retired vermicelli manufacturer during the early nineteenth-century, who sacrifices his wealth to allow his two ungrateful daughters upward social mobility. In the end they don’t even attend their penurious father’s funeral. The novel, which reminded me a little of Shel Silverstein’s children’s story The Giving Tree, is a biting social commentary on the status-obsessed Parisians of the Bourbon Restoration.

Balzac’s story has got me thinking about generosity. How much is too much? Obviously, Goriot took his parental generosity to an unhealthy extreme. It’s only natural for us to give more freely to our children, but the novel shows the perverse effects of misplaced generosity and echoes the Bible’s warning that “the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). Generosity may begin at home, as the saying goes, but it must go beyond. Most of what I read in Scripture about giving directs me to give to those less fortunate than I, not those who are better off, even if they are my own offspring. What do you think?

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Honesty

Chinese Communist Propaganda Poster, Cultural Revolution Era (1966-1969), Caption reads: “Never forget that the Chinese Communist Party Emancipated Us! All Happiness Comes from Chairman Mao!”

***

In Woody Allen’s 1972 movie Play it again Sam the following scene takes place in an art museum:

WOODY ALLEN:  That’s quite a lovely Jackson Pollock, isn’t it?

GIRL IN MUSEUM:  Yes it is.

WOODY ALLEN:  What does it say to you?

GIRL IN MUSEUM:  It restates the negativeness of the universe, the hideous lonely emptiness of existence, nothingness, the predicament of man forced to live in a barren, godless eternity, like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void, with nothing but waste, horror, and degradation, forming a useless bleak straightjacket in a black absurd cosmos.

WOODY ALLEN:  What are you doing Saturday night?

GIRL IN MUSEUM:  Committing suicide.

WOODY ALLEN:  What about Friday night?

Here’s the original scene on a YouTube video:

In my last post, I suggested that there’s order in Pollock’s chaos and that’s something that first impressed me about his art. The above dialogue, besides being hilariously funny, suggests that Pollock’s work is an expression of a kind of dark, nihilistic existentialism. It’s negative and depressing. It shows the meaninglessness in the universe.

This idea brings several questions to my mind. Is abstract art an expression of a cynical, anti-Christian worldview? If so, can you appreciate art without buying into the underlying worldview? Do you have to approve of an artist in order to approve of her art? Does art have to be aesthetically pleasing? If it’s not pretty can it still be art?

The Apostle Paul said, “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Phil. 4:8). Take a look at communist art sometimes, especially propaganda art like the poster above. When compared with the realities of the totalitarian state that approved it, it’s hardly honest. Given the evil and suffering in the world—all of the chaos—one thing I think it’s safe to say about abstract art, which reflects that chaos, is that it’s honest.

Are you ready to have an honest dialogue about things of ultimate importance, about matters of faith? If so, what are you doing Saturday night?

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Order and Chaos

Jackson Pollock, Cathedral (1947), enamel and aluminum paint on canvas, 71 1/2 x 35 1/16 in., Dallas Museum of Art

The first time I remember abstract art making an impression on me was when I was an undergrad in college. It was a Jackson Pollock drip painting at the Dallas Museum of Art. It’s been so long I can’t be sure now which one it was or what drew me to it. It was so unlike everything I had been taught to appreciate—the sentimental realism of Norman Rockwell, the soft impressionism of Monet, the lofty romanticism of J.M.W. Turner. So I stood there confused and mesmerized by the Pollock canvas. What struck me most about the painting was the fact that despite the crazy busyness of it, there seemed to be some kind of underlying symmetry. There was order beneath the chaos.

Last year my oldest daughter Natalie and I watched the Ed Harris movie Pollock. One thing I learned that I didn’t realize before was that Pollock studied with the famous regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton whose work I knew from his colorful illustrations in Francis Parkman’s frontier classic The Oregon Trail. Could there be any two artists more different from each other than Pollock and his teacher?

Thomas Hart Benton, The Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley (1934), oil and tempera on canvas, 104.8 x 133.4 cm., Spencer Museum of Art, Lawrence, Kansas

Benton is more accessible and orderly than Pollock and Benton’s paintings tell a story. You don’t even need to know the backstory to get an idea of what’s going on. Take, for example, Benton’s The Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley. You don’t need to know the folk song that inspired the painting to realize it’s about a lovers’ quarrel turned violent. Margaret Kaufman wrote a delightful short story called “Life Saving Lessons” in which two preteen girls interpret the painting. Even young people can get it. But there’s messiness in Benton too. His rubbery figures undulate unnaturally and appear almost grotesque at times. His themes can be disturbing and ambiguous.

What strikes me about Pollock and his teacher are the parallel tensions in the two men’s art. There’s order in Pollock’s chaos and chaos in Benton’s order.

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Relaxing

Last week was a discouraging week. Not only was I flooded with busywork, lots of job-related minutiae, but I got some disappointing news as well. But by the end of the week things turned around. Good news came. Work got done and my mood improved. I’m amazed and frustrated by how much my outer circumstances affect my inner life. I need to reread Epictetus or the Sermon on the Mount, “Take no thought for the morrrow. . .” (Matt. 6:34). Today I am resolved to read and relax, regardless of what life brings me. Breathe in, breathe out. That’s most of what I have to do today.

In my devotional reading this morning, I came across the following prayer I want to share with you:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. (Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude)

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What do you want to be?

I’ve been writing a lot lately, just not posting on my blog. I wrote my first short story, which I plan to submit to a writing contest by this weekend. Since I’ve been neglectful of my blog readers (both of you). I’ll share with you some thoughts I jotted down a while back about the importance of “being” as it relates to pastoral ministry.

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When my daughter Maddy was a little younger someone once asked her what she wanted to be when she grows up. “A mermaid!” she responded enthusiastically. “No,” her questioner said, ‘I mean what job do you want to do when you grow up?” Quick as a wink Maddy replied, “You asked me what I want to be, not what I want to do.”

I’ve had two favorite pastors as an adult. One is an old-fashioned, fundamental Baptist preacher, who likes to be called “preacher,” not “pastor” or “reverend,” and listens to Gospel radio. He never finished the little, unaccredited Bible college he attended and has pastored the same church for 25 years. The other has a PhD from Johns Hopkins, taught as an adjunct faculty member of seminaries and at a major university for many years, listens to NPR, and feels more at home in moderate Baptist circles. These men are quite different in education and outlook and yet I like them for many of the same reasons. They’re both profound, thoughtful men. Both are passionate but steady, even keeled. Both are readers, who like books that challenge their thinking. Both are pastors who gently shepherd their flocks. Both put a lot of time and thought into planning worship. Both love music. They both have what Edwin Friedman called a “non-anxious presence.” It is who they are, not what they do, that makes them each good pastors and good men.

So, what do you want to be?

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Size Matters

Lucas Cranach the Elder. Martin Luther. 1533. Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg.

There’s a fascinating article about Martin Luther’s body in the current edition of The American Historical Review (“Marin Luther’s Body: The ‘Stout Doctor’ and His Biographers,” April 2010). The author, Lyndal Roper, is a fellow and tutor in history at Bailliol College at Oxford University. She points out that Luther’s artists and biographers weren’t shy about depicting his monumental form, and Luther himself often spoke of the body, especially his own body, in ways that we find shocking today. In the middle ages, the ideal Christian was an ascetic—a thin saint whose physical form testified to a life of fasting and self-denial. A former monk, Luther rejected monasticism and embraced physical pleasure (food, beer, marital sex). But this was no hedonism.

Physicality was an important part of Luther’s theology. He rejected any teaching that tried to split body and spirit. At the 1529 Marburg Colloquy he debated Eucharistic theology with the Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli, who believed the bread and wine were mere symbols of the body and blood of Christ. Luther insisted on the “real presence” of Christ in the elements of the Lord’s Supper.

Luther’s theology is often reduced to sola fide—salvation by faith alone apart from good works. But just like his expansive form, there was so much more to his message. His positive reevaluation of the body is just one example.

(You can read a previous post I wrote about Martin Luther, called “The Luther Myth,” by clicking here.)

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