Faith, Art, and Haiti

Haiti.  It is hard to imagine.

Tucked in the somewhat artificial security of middle-class American suburbia, I found my mind continually drifting back to this tragedy, trying to make sense of it.  The poverty of the area, the magnitude of the earthquake, the depth and breadth of the hardship and grief.  Because even though I could offer some theological explanations for the existence of evil and adversity in the world, there is still the reality of the personal suffering and pain.

If you think about it, the large-magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti could hit any of us.  Especially for those of us living in northern California.  So I live in this weird juxtaposition: I sip my latte and pray for Haiti.

Honestly, it paralyzed my blogging for a time.  I felt that anything I had to say in terms of faith and the arts paled in comparison to the larger issues of life and death, tragedy and circumstance, God's will and the brevity of human life.

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Why I Hate American Idol

America's most popular reality show, "American Idol,” begins Season 9 this week.  One more season of judge in-fighting, audition train wrecks, pop divas, contestant theatrics, and some authentically talented vocalists.  And I couldn't care less.

Before you start writing your rebuttal response, let me say:  I don’t really hate American Idol.  It’s just that AI exposes some things about our society that run in both subtle and flagrant opposition to things I feel very strongly about—things like faith, art, personal expression, and even basic human principles like decency and the golden rule.  Besides, “hate” is a strong and vulgar word to me, one that I use sparingly.  So I guess when I say “hate” American Idol, I really mean to say something more akin to “cringe with embarrassment and aversion.

Waiting for Inspiration

Traditionally, I take the week off after Christmas.  For a worship pastor like myself, this is a bit of a sacred time—to spend with family, physically and spiritually refuel from the long fall and Christmas schedule, and do a little reflecting on life.  This last week, I also fired up my project recording studio, collected all the odd and unformed lyrics I have jotted down over the past six months, and gave my right brain an opportunity to play a little bit.  (I also snuck onto my daughters' new Wii a few times, but that may be irrelevant.)

Every songwriter works in their own way.  Some like to start with a melody; others begin with a lick or a lyrical phrase or some chord changes.  There are no rules, no procedures, no single formula for writing a song.  There is only this inexplicable thing called inspiration—that seems like luck and works like magic and feels like madness.

The most gifted and hard working artists seem to be inspired all the time, but that is not true.  When there is no inspiration, it is then that skill and gifting can carry you.  A gifted songwriter can write a song whether or not they are inspired, simply because they understand the craft of songwriting.  A gifted painter can create an amazing work of art simply because they have a canvas in front of them.  And a gifted writer can write a great article simply because they are under a deadline.  All of this begs the question: Is inspiration a requirement for creativity?

As artists, we are obligated to steward the gifts God gives us, through diligent discipline.  Artists must be attentive to their craft.  In other words, having talent is not an excuse for not working hard.  Quite the opposite—the greater the giftedness, the greater the obligation to steward those gifts, to work and hone our craft.  It is a matter of the parable of the talents, applied to our talents.  And so, because I understand and practice the craft of songwriting, I can write songs that are creative.  But I don't always write songs that are good.  In fact, I am really quite good at writing mediocre songs.  So where does the inspiration come in?

Jeremy Begbie states that "art is...inherently dialogical."  And I believe that includes a vertical dialogue, a transcendent and spiritual component to our art.  When we are inspired, it feels like we are tapping into this wholly other thing.

This last week, I was feeling inspired.  And for me, this inspiration—that seems like luck and works like magic and feels like madness—took me somewhere I don't think I could have gone by myself.  

As a Christ-follower, I believe that all true inspiration ultimately comes from the Spirit of God.  I also know that the Spirit of God is a much better songwriter than I am, so I am often reticent to give him credit for the stuff I write.  But this week, I walked into my studio with a some unhurried time, a few scratched-out ideas, and an attentiveness to the Inspirer of things—and I walked out of my studio with three new songs.  And so far, they still sound pretty good.

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A Little Elfin Wisdom

Our family will be stirring in the kitchen—the twins will be making their school lunches, and I'll be in the middle of my bleary-eyed coffee-making ritual—and in the dreariness of that morning moment, my son Justin will suddenly belt out in a loud and chipper voice, "I'm singing!  I'm singing!  I'm in a store and I'm singing....!"

Around my house this time of year, the one movie that gets quoted more than any other is "Elf."  Starring James Caan, Bob Newhart, Zooey Deschanel, and a surprisingly PG-rated Will Ferrell in the title role, the movie exudes elfin charm, wide-eyed innocence, and more than a knowing wink-and-nod to the traditional Christmas classics.  Besides "Napoleon Dynamite," it may be the most quotable movie ever.  My kids and I will randomly throw out quotes at each other over dinner, during chores, or even while playing Madden.  

One of the things I like about the movie is that there is this clumsy and naive, yet unrestrained moral anchor that underpins the central character.  In contrast to the soiled and unsafe world of New York City, Buddy the Elf's morality seems quaint and old-fashioned, but ultimately—and in Hollywood fashion—wins everyone over in the end. 

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Learning to Live in Awe

One of the Christmastime traditions my wife and I established with our children when they were young was looking at the Christmas lights around our community. Bundled up under blankets in our minivan (the twenty-first century version of the horse-drawn sleigh), the entire family would drive down one street and up another, seeing all the decorated houses in our neighborhood.

And people would go all out. Life-sized reindeer. Nativity scenes. Santas coming down chimneys. Snowmen with top hats and pipes. Candy canes lining people’s driveways. And lights. Lots and lots of lights. The more the lights, the more we’d “ooh” and “aah.”  Then we’d drive back to our house and have hot cocoa.

It was in their third Christmas that my twins, Rachel and Paige, were old enough to really appreciate the event. And that they did. Through their little three year old eyes, our neighborhood was a magical and amazing place. Every house glowed like fresh baked gingerbread. Trees glistened like the moonlight on fresh-fallen snow. And everywhere there were lights, Rachel and Paige announced excitedly, “Ommagosh, it’s bootiful.”

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Seeking Acceptance & Approval as an Artist

David Bayles and Ted Orland, in their book Art & Fear, suggest that the artist needs two things from their audience: acceptance and approval.  They assert, “acceptance means having your work counted as the real thing; approval means having people like it.”  In other words, we crave the acceptance of our critics and peers and opinion leaders to validate our work.  And we crave the approval of others to validate us.

I think this is normal for any artist, to seek not only approval but also acceptance.  We ask ourselves the deep questions of being. Does what I do have merit?  Am I touching people with my song, my book, my poem, my painting?  Is there some significance to my work, beyond my own skewed self-perceptions?  Is there some significance to me?  These are all valid and deeply felt questions that strike at the very heart of who we are and what we do as artists.

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Like the Stars on a Cloudless Night

I recently participated in the Christian Musicians Summit at Overlake (Seattle area).  During this two-day conference, I shared concepts on the arts and faith from my book to scores of artists—musicians, painters, actors, dancers, and technical artists.  It was a blast.

One of the things I look forward to as I speak more in this context is watching the imaginary light bulbs that start to turn on over people’s heads.  This time, there was a definite corporate “aah!” moment as I shared the idea that we don’t have to be message-oriented in our art.  Christian evangelicals in particular operate under the paradigm that the arts are to be used as a vehicle for a message, and of course, the message is “the Gospel,” however you may define it.  (Note: I originally derived this concept from Francis Schaeffer in his seminal book, Art and the Bible.)

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What is it to sing a "New Song"?

"Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth."    Psalm 96:1

Recently, Worship Leader Magazine asked me (among others) to respond to two questions that they will be focusing on in an upcoming issue.  The questions they posed were quite thought-provoking and, upon further reflection, essential for the worship leader.  I look forward to the January 2010 issue and what others have to say.  Meanwhile, here are their questions and my extended response to them.

WL:  What is New Song?

Before I came to Christ, there were three kinds of songs I typically wrote: “I love you” songs, “You left me” songs, and “You can leave now” songs.  (I think I wrote a song about the circus once too.

Musicians' Most Quoted Movie Scenes

I know.  I don’t typically do this kind of blog. Usually I am trying to tackle issues of theology and the arts, or sharing some insightful life lesson that I’ve happened upon, or summarizing a recent gig or artistic adventure.  If you’re looking for that today, this ain’t it.

I stumbled upon a an internet video of one of my favorite music movie scenes, and it got me thinking about the movies us musicians quote, especially before, between, or after a gig.  We’re a bit of a weird breed of cat, and the things that make us laugh are often left of center.  So here’s a really short list, in no particular order, of movies that rock, blues, and even jazz musicians I play with refer to.  (Note that my mentioning it here is not an endorsement of the movie!)  But if you want to add to the list, please let me hear from you.  And make sure you check out the links!

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The Lost Virtue of Fidelity

My church is going to celebrate our 25th anniversary this week.  As you can imagine, we’ve gone through a lot in that time.  We’ve had our celebrations, births, weddings, funerals, baptisms, Christmases and Easters, retreats and advances.  We've met at a storefront, a high school, afternoons at another church, portable buildings, and finally our own performing arts facility built largely with volunteer staff.  There are hundreds of people to whom I have given my heart—in ministry and in life—for a season and for eternity. 

There are decades of memories wrapped up in this celebration, from special private moments with one or two people to countless moments in public congregational intimacy through worship and other artistic expressions.  There have been large numbers of people (numbers known only to God) who have committed their lives to Christ.  I’ve had the privilege of being able to share the creative process with hundreds—maybe thousands—of actors, dancers, musicians, producers, technical artists, poets, painters, graphic artists, recording engineers, writers, photographers, vocalists, artisans, visionaries.  And I have laughed so hard and so long, that I’ve gone to bed with a sore belly.

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A rock musician turned rocket engineer turned Christian artist, MANUEL LUZ is a creative arts pastor, working musician, and author. His new book, Imagine That: Discovering Your Unique Role as a Christian Artist, is released by Moody Publishers.