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Sunday, February 11, 2018

Weekend Conference

I had the privilege this weekend of attending a L'Abri conference in Rochester, MN. It's hard to describe what exactly this organization is, so I won't try -- but it's worth looking up if you're not familiar. This particular conference was built around the theme of "Christianity and Creativity" and focused on a lot of presentations and discussions around that theme. I've been sensing a call to invest anew in my love of writing, and this seemed timely.

There's no way I can share all of the excellent things I experienced. (To be honest, one of the most exciting presentations for me was by a man who has devoted much of his life to enjoying, understanding and researching J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and the body of literature that has come to surround it. That drew me in pretty thoroughly. And it was pretty incredible to meet someone who is so much more knowledgeable and nerdy about LOTR than I am!) So I thought I'd share a few bullet point items that were poignant for me this weekend.

  • Very often, Christians are tempted to withdraw from "culture" -- by which we mean that we are rejecting the world and its evil ways. Instead, this conference came from the perspective that while there is indeed a sense in which the world is sinful and broken, it is still the world that "God so loves" (John 3:16) and Christians are both called to "not conform" to this world but also to be "transformed by the renewing of your minds" (Romans 12:1-2) and it is under this second "be transformed" rubric that we engage in the arts as a way of witnessing to the grace and love of God, both implicitly and explicitly.
  • The creation story in Genesis 1-2 gives us a mandate that can be expanded to three basic categories -- fruit-bearing, gentle lordship, and covenant blessings. These tasks that God gives to humans are not destroyed by the fall -- rather they are made all the more necessary and important.
  • Creativity is one of the most deeply exciting aspects of this cultural mandate. As part of this mandate, art provides a way, through beauty, to speak to the need for hope and Jesus as the fulfillment of God's plan to make hope a reality for us. 
  • Ambiguity in art is necessary to allow a conversation between artist and audience. Some Christian artists are tempted to remove all ambiguity from their art, but this reduces such works to mere propaganda that don't allow the audience any participation in the desired conversation. Propaganda simply says, "This is the truth -- accept it!" Art, on the other hand, welcomes us and gives room for our imaginations to participate in the "world" the artist has created. 
  • Imagination became one of the resounding themes of the weekend, and one that I sensed God wanted me to pay close attention to. (It was all the more impactful for me when two days running, my regular daily devotional -- Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, focused specifically on the imagination!) There were tons of quotes about the value and importance of imagination. Here are just two that might get you thinking about how critically important imagination is: "It is through the imagination that we can think about a loved one who is far away and conceive what it would be like to be with them." And second, similarly, "We connect with and reflect rightly about God via our imaginations." 
  • Both artist and audience need imagination.
  • What does it mean to leave room for the imagination? Great art leaves room for imagination through ambiguity -- it is not immediately obvious what is meant. There are layers of meaning in the Bible through this use of ambiguity, which allows us to come at the same text over and over and discover new depths. 
  • Irony and satire are present in Christian art, including in the biblical narratives. By engaging artists who have a more satiric bent -- examples included C.S. Lewis (a Christian example) in The Screwtape Letters or the songs of Randy Newman (a non-Christian), we can engage the tensions and difficulties of real life. Joy and sorrow often go side by side. 
  • Intentional ambiguity for the artist might mean intentionally avoiding tidy solutions, or avoiding the temptation to try to communicate your whole message in any one work. 
  • Understatement is the artist's friend. What is left unsaid often speaks the loudest. 
  • We have to have the courage to be misunderstood. (Randy Newman again.)
  • There is an integral relationship between Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. All three are necessary -- they are interdependent. 
  • Art that pursues the True, the Good, and the Beautiful may still be disturbing or difficult. 
  • Art that pursues the True, the Good, and the Beautiful pushes the audience to engage with the transcendent. 
  • The Enlightenment (as a historical movement) dismissed God, the Bible, and faith into the realm of the subjective, believing instead that only that which is measurable is objectively true. So we in both the world and the church in the last century have bought into the Enlightenment assumption that beauty is entirely subjective -- that is, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." 
Moving on to a couple thoughts about J.R.R. Tolkien and LOTR: 
  • By the age of 15, Tolkien knew Latin, Greek, French, Welsh, Middle English, and was learning Anglo-Saxon. He learned Spanish shortly thereafter from their parish priest, and learned Finnish in order to be able to read the classic Finnish poem "Kalevala" in the original language. 
  • Tolkien saw himself as creating a mythology for the English people.
  • As an intriguing aside, the presenter briefly referred to A.A. Milne (of "Winnie The Pooh" fame) as a kinder, gentler fantasy writer akin to Tolkien. Sent me down a rabbit-hole (oh, bother) for a while thinking about how much I have enjoyed those stories.
  • The Hobbit and LOTR is about "the sanctification of the humble." 
  • The primary character, in Tolkien's view, in LOTR is God, who is "never named but never absent" throughout. 
We had a couple excellent poets in house, and one who was scheduled to present but health concerns kept her from attending. However, a close student of hers did an outstanding presentation including principles of what to look for in a poem. Here are a few tidbits:
  • Poetry needs strong visual imagery that paints a picture and evokes emotion or reflection.
  • God didn't create the universe "ex nihilo" (out of nothing) but "ex amore" -- out of love. 
  • Poetry needs a surprise -- an unexpected turn or word. Often this "turn" is evidence of God's fingerprints.
  • Beauty is truth shining into being.
  • Pay attention to form. Be economical with words. 
  • Beauty is the recognition of correspondence between two parts of a metaphor. 
  • The intersection of faith and art -- "culture has a thousand surfaces that invite our imprint of meaning"
  • Show both the light and the shadow
We talked a fair amount about movies (including all video-based art) as a more recent historical art form, but one which impacts more people than any other today. 
  • Art is not a commodity to be consumed but a relationship to be nourished.
  • There were a lot of specific movies recommended and discussed. If you're looking for some recommendations, feel free to email me -- my own list got a lot longer after this conference! I'm especially eager to watch "Silence" and a couple others. We also touched on a couple TV series, especially "The X-Files" and "Stranger Things" that both deal with the existence of evil against human reason. 
One of the most provocative breakouts I went to focused on the questions Jesus asks. Did you know that Jesus asks more than 300 questions in the 4 gospels? We talked about how questions are especially "generative" -- that is, they create or reveal something that is profoundly creative, creating new possibilities and relationships. Questions are some of the greatest tools for any artist. 

Okay, that's all just a taste, I know, and there was a lot more. I have to admit that I was convicted and inspired to go back to my own writing, especially, and mostly leave Netflix off for a while. I've started revisiting some writing projects that I've got mothballed away, and I'm even poking at poetry again. Might share some of that in the coming days, depending on. 

And for regular readers, I'm still reading Deuteronomy and haven't forgotten about all that. 

But what about you? Where is God calling you to exercise creativity, whether you consider yourself an artist or not? What are your reactions to some of the bullet pointed thoughts above? Again, feel free to comment or email, or just ponder!

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