A Christmas Carol and the Power of Art

Art has the ability to inspire us and captivate our imaginations like nothing else can. You experience this when seeing a particularly powerful film, where the story and characters take you to a different emotional place. Whether viewing a classic like Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life or a current movie such as Martin Scorsese’s Silence, you are affected viscerally in a way only art can prompt. A painting can be transcendent as well. Henri Nouwen was so moved by Rembrandt’s visual interpretation of The Return of the Prodigal Son that he wrote a book based on the impressions he saw in the work.

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Star Spangled Divas

Sometimes something happens that is so unspeakably weird, but happens so often, that no matter how weird it might be, it becomes normal.  Like people who wear sunglasses at night.  Or people who go on Jerry Springer.

Or when someone publicly sings the Star Spangled Banner.

It’s quite common now to see divas and boy bands and all matter of wannabes all stylizing their way through our National Anthem.  They scoop for the lows, stretch for the highs, interject a few gospel growls, throw an interminably long descant on “freeeee!,” and then add a few unnecessary tags at the end.  (I keep expecting someone to add “Oh baby!” at some point.)  It probably began simply enough; some celebrity vocalist added a simple flourish to the song, is applauded for it, and since then, scores of singers have been trying to outdo it since.

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Art and Censorship

Recently, Christian author & blogger Rachel Held Evans created a little controversy over her newest book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood.  Specifically, LifeWay Christian Resources, a large, conservative Christian book chain, had decided not to carry this book, apparently because she used the word, "vagina." (Note: LifeWay is the same bookstore chain that previously created a stir by banning the popular and well-intentioned movie, "The Blind Side," from their stores.)
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Suspending My Disbelief

When I was a little kid, my brothers and I used to play “Raft.” Raft was a simple game, something we probably made up on a boring, nondescript afternoon. We would all jump on our parents’ king-size bed and pretend that our ship had sank, and we were the lone survivors on a small, inflatable raft. In our minds, we could taste the salt water, feel the waves bob us about, hear the lonely cry of a sea gull in the distance. And then, as always, my older brother would quietly announce that he could see sharks in the water. He would explain that the only way the sharks would leave us alone would be if they had some food to eat. And then we would look at one another for one brief, adrenalized moment. And then we would suddenly lunge at one another, frantically throwing each other off the bed.
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The Artist as Beauty Maker

Whenever I speak at conferences or churches about the nature of the arts, I inevitably get bogged down about one third into my presentation.  Some daring soul near the back of the room will raise his or her hand—often a young person or college student—and ask a brutally honest question: “Isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder?”  And that’s when the firestorm begins.

Many intelligent and inspired people far smarter than I have written volumes on the subject of beauty over the centuries.  So to attempt to speak on the subject of beauty is, by definition, to talk over one’s head.  I myself have written briefly about this issue in my previous book, Imagine That, and blogged and spoken on this issue a number of times.  Which is to say that I attempt to speak of things great and transcendent.  So these firestorms, when they happen, are often controversial and animated.  Specifically, what gets the dialogue going is the contention that beauty is an objective property (i.e., an intrinsic quality of a given thing) and not a subjective one (i.e., dependent on the capricious whims of the person who experiences it). In other words, beauty is not dependent on what you think about it.

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Visual Bible: Judas' Kiss

The painting we are looking at this week is by Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337). I was mesmerized by this painting. It is chaotic. It is intense. It is probably a lot like the real event portrayed in the Gospels (see Matthew 26:47-56). When I think of the event, on the other hand, it is often much more calm than this. If you read Matthew's description particularly, there is a sense where there is an initial scene that Jesus dispels rather quickly. In my mind, the action stops when Jesus starts speaking, and the mob just stands there dumbly as he teaches his disciples. But that probably wasn't how it happened. Peter cut off someone's ear for goodness sake.

Bondone's painting reveals the tension I feel in my own reading well. There is something of a painting within a painting here. Immediately, upon looking at it, your eyes are drawn to Jesus and Judas. Their embrace is not one of enemies, but almost of lovers. As their eyes are locked into each others', so are the eyes of the mob locked in on their embrace. The other painting is the larger chaotic struggle, as Peter cuts off someone's ear, and the dark figure on the bottom left grabs John's cloak as he runs away. But your eyes, as much as they try, cannot stop pondering the Jesus/Judas embrace. Is Judas' expression a realization of what he has done? Is Jesus' expression and peace an act of grace or condemnation? 

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Tags | Art

Visual Bible: Christ on the Cross

Salvador Dali, a surrealist painter from the 20th century, gives us a gripping image of Christ that has at least two different perspectives. Christ is on the cross, kind of, but there are no nails to hold him there. This, of course, begs the question, what does hold Christ to the cross anyway? Love. Furthermore, there is no nail marks either. In fact, Christ looks pretty good. We do not find the crucified Christ, we see the resurrected Christ, gazing down upon the normal and mundane activities of life. Christ has not been raised beyond the cross, but Christ is still the cruciform One who now reigns in power. But this power does not undo the reality of the cross, but it substantializes it in his reign as prophet, priest, and king.

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Tags | Art

Visual Bible: Caravaggio and Thomas and the Risen Christ

We see in John 20:19-29 the reason why many people still know the disciple named Thomas as "Doubting Thomas." Thomas refuses to believe until he sees Jesus with his own eyes and touches his nail and spear wounds. There is much more to say about this passage, but lets turn to Caravaggio's take. Caravaggio's style forces you into the midst of the painting - many times in a way you don't want. Assuming that Thomas took Jesus up on his offer to touch his side and his nail wounds, Caravaggio paints Thomas about an inch deep into Jesus' spear wound. Importantly though, notice that the only movement in the painting is by Jesus. Thomas seems worried, shocked, and a bit overwhelmed (notice his forehead), as are the other disciples. Jesus on the other hand is calm, collected, and is grasping Thomas' hand to guide it into the wound and using his other hand to pull his garment out of the way. 

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Tags | Art

Visual Bible: The Ascension and Durer

I am starting a new blog series using artwork to help us interpret the Bible. In other words, I am using certain artists as fellow interpreters of scripture to help us think through what we may learn from these artists. This series is based on an adult Sunday School series I am teaching with Chris Webb, and I will post each piece of artwork here with some reflections after we talk about them each Sunday. If you want to follow along, you can check out the paintings and the Bible passages we are using here. We are working through Gospel stories backwards as a countdown to Christmas.

This piece is a word-cut by Durer, and was made in the 16th century. We had a great discussion about this in class, and I wanted to highlight some of our thoughts here. First, it should be noted, that this work is tiny. It is, if I recall correctly, 5 x 8 inches, and as a wood cut it would have been carved backwards and in negative (he would have carved out where he wanted the white). It is pretty amazing. There is a lot of detail as well for something that small.

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Tags | Art

Rethinking Christina Aguilera and the Star Spangled Banner

Wow.  It seems like everyone these days has an opinion on Christina Aguilera and her now infamous rendition of the National Anthem. Radio talk jocks and internet bloggers, patriots and politicos, grandpas and pre-teens, professional athletes and armchair quarterbacks—there is no lack of spin coming from all directions.

Now, if you're looking for a blog slamming Aguilera for her performance, this ain't it.  It is true that I am neither a fan of pop divas (except maybe for Aretha Franklin), nor of the lifestyles they seemingly represent. I do know that Aguilera is an extremely talented vocalist (her performance on Herbie Hancock's album, Possibilities, still knocks my socks off).  But if you know me or read my blog, you know that I will occasionally rant against culture but purposefully not rant against people.

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