Why America Should Fund the Arts

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is a public agency dedicated to supporting excellence in the arts, both new and established; bringing the arts to all Americans; and providing leadership in arts education. Established by Congress in 1965 as an independent agency of the federal government, the Endowment is the nation's largest annual funder of the arts, bringing great art to all 50 states, including rural areas, inner cities, and military bases.

The National Council on the Arts advises the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, who also chairs the Council, on agency policies and programs. It reviews and makes recommendations to the Chairman on applications for grants, funding guidelines, and leadership initiatives.

Artist Makoto Fujimura was appointed to the National Council for the Arts in 2002. Recently, Christy Tennant sat down with Mako and asked him about his work with the NEA.
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It's Really Not About the Smoke Monster

Lost rocks.

Last Thursday’s episode (my favorite of the season so far) reminded me why I love (and have stuck with) this show. And it’s not because of smoke monsters or hatches or mysteries or Dharma projects or innovative storytelling (although I do really like all those things—well, not the smoke monster).

At its heart, Lost moves forward so powerfully because of its characters—those castaways, those Others, who have given us a look at their lives and helped us see our own. Thursday’s episode gave us a beautiful and poignant moment about people, about relationships, through Desmond.

I’ve liked Desmond since the moment he showed up in Season 2 as the button-pushing hatch-dweller (he’d been on the island for three years when we met him). We’ve gotten to know a lot about him along the way, and he’s become as dear to me as any of the original survivors of Oceanic 815 (and that’s saying a lot, because there have been many newbies brought into the show that have not endeared themselves to me—or to anyone else, for that matter. Remember Nikki and Paulo? Yikes!).

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During an election year in which a Democratic victory seemed all but assured, the Dumbocrats have figured out another way to self sabotage. While John McCain rallies the Republicans, the Democratic party looks determined to march towards a floor fight at their convention in Denver. In one sense, it is great to see voters engaged, with record numbers turning out for the primaries. Yet at this point, the protracted battle between Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama only benefits the G.O.P.

Last week’s Democratic debate in Ohio was a huge victory for John McCain. By opening with sixteen minutes of debate about the minor differences in their health care plans, Clinton and Obama reminded us why Americans are so often turned off by politics. We’ll happily elect officials to hash out such details. We don’t necessarily want to be dragged into the aracana of public policy. We can expect more of the same through Pennsylania’s primary.

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"Oh My God"

I’d been meaning to download this song for about six months and finally got around to tracking it down on iTunes two days ago.

I really do not know if I’ve heard a song that speaks to humanity’s desperation for God in a universal and intimate way like this one does. It’s devastating.

For the past month I’ve been feeling really convicted about a presentation I gave at Biola’s Journalism conference last year. I couldn’t figure out why it was gnawing at me but I just knew I was wrong in some of what I’d said. Two events this week help me see very clearly where I’d gone wrong. The first was the passing of Larry Norman and the second was finding this song.

My dad gave me one of Larry Norman’s albums a year ago and declared, as he handed it to me, that it was one of his favorite Christian records of all time. I won’t go into Larry’s history or significance, I’ll just encourage you to read his wikipedia page and point out, to you younger readers, that Norman was in the unique and paradoxical position in Chrisitian music to be massive and influential, which meant that he got stones thrown at him from both the Christian and secular worlds, and that because of his influence he inspired people in the secular world you’d never expect; like Frank Black from the Pixies. Crazy.

Then, like I said, two days ago I finally got around to getting this song off of iTunes. I was led to it because I knew that the song playing in the background of a John Piper YouTube video I liked was a Jars of Clay song that sounded interesting. I know nothing about Jars of Clay other than they had one big hit in the 90’s and so I had to do a little investigating. After I figured it out I looked up the lyrics and saved them until I got home from the internet café.

I have never really liked Christian music. I’ve seen it as more often than not, reactive instead of progressive, defensive instead of ambitiously creative – it seems that more often than not Christian art is a parody of secular culture and well behind the curve. I said all this as I spoke at that conference, and then I traced the roots of Christianity’s withdrawal from the arts (and sciences) to Galileo and the Renaissance. I talked about the cultural walls we’d put up to keep ourselves “safe” and to keep the people we didn’t agree with out. In doing so though, we’d stopped influencing culture on an artistic level. I argued that there should only be Christian music that was specifically worship music and not the marketed sub-culture that has grown.

But what I see now, with the passing of Larry Norman, and this song is that if we eliminated Christian music as the umbrella industry it is, we’d be taking away a platform that allows for there to be poetic prophets. Prophets can speak with a guitar as easily as they can with a pen.

The familiar definition of a prophet is one who speaks God’s Word or His will, but there is another social dimension to it. Throughout the Bible, and history, prophets speak from a minority group against a majority group: Moses and Egypt, Isaiah and Assyria and Israel, Jeremiah and Babylon and Israel, and so on. They speak a message that is critical of the dominant power or ways of thought, they show how it will ultimately fail, and they offer an alternative view of the world. They point out social injustices and how far the world and our lives are from what God intended them to be.

Isaiah, Amos, and Moses all did that.

Spurgeon, Tozer, and Lewis all did that.

Those are names we would probably naturally think of if we thought of “prophet”. But would we think of “Larry Norman”? Would we think of the words in this Jars of Clay song? Would we think of Dustin Kensrue (though he’s not within the Christian industry, his words are as sweeping and pointed as any of those mentioned above)?

I want to write more but I have to get to the internet and I want to share this song with you this week.

Read the lyrics as you listen.

A fan of inspired guitars and pens,



Jars of Clay - "Oh My God"

Oh my God, look around this place,

Your fingers reach around the bone,

you set the break and set the tone

For flights of grace, and future falls

In present pain all fools say, "Oh my God."

Oh my God, why are we so afraid?

we make it worse when we don't bleed,

there is no cure for our disease.

Turn a phrase and rise again,

or fake your death and only tell your closest friends,

Oh My God.

Oh my God, can I complain?

You take away my firm belief and graft my soul upon your grief.

Weddings, boats, and alibis,

All drift away, and a mother cries...

Liars and fools, sons and failures, thieves will always say..

Lost and found, ailing wanderers, healers always say..

Whores and angels, men with problems, leavers always say..

Broken hearted, separated, orphans always say..

War creators, racial haters, preachers always say..

Distant fathers, fallen warriors, givers always say..

Pilgrim saints, lonely widows, users always say..

Fearful mothers, watchful doubters, Saviors always say..

Sometimes I can not forgive

and these days mercy cuts so deep,

If the world was how it should be, maybe I could get some sleep.

While I lay, I'd dream we're better, scales were gone and faces lighter,

When we wake we hate our brother, we still move to hurt each other,

Sometimes I can close my eyes and all the fear the keeps me silent,

Falls below my heavy breathing, what makes me so badly bent?

We all have a chance to murder, we all feel the need for wonder.

We still want to be reminded that the pain is worth the plunder.

Sometimes when I lose my grip, I wonder what to make of heaven,

All the times I thought to reach up, all the times I had to give up.

Babies underneath their beds, in hospitals that cannot treat them.

All the wounds that money causes, all the comforts of cathedrals,

All the cries of thirsty children, this is our inheritance,

All the rage of watching mothers, this is our greatest offense

Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God.

Base camp... or Destination: the challenge of church buildings

On any climbing trip, one runs the risk that, for all the packing, training, hauling of loads, and preparation of logistical details, you and your friends could end up doing nothing more than playing poker in the tent, or telling stupid jokes, or singing songs from old sitcoms. If that happens, it's usually because of the weather. Some clouds have dropped in for a visit, reducing visibility so that you can't see the person in front of you on the rope. When that happens, your stuck in base camp.

Sure, cards, jokes, and sitcom songs are fun. But all that other stuff, those long bike rides, weight lifting, running, and cutting back on coffee (and if you want to know about sacrifice, let me tell you about cutting back on coffee) - it all becomes a waste of time. I mean, you can play poker at home.

No, you came here for the summit. You stopped below it and established a place to care for blisters, stretch out your back, brew some tea, eat some freeze dried somethings, sleep a bit, and then press on. But the point is pressing on, not playing poker. The point is summiting, not singing. The weather might have held you back, but your heart was all about getting out.

This 'purpose of the base camp' discussion has been in mind this week because the church where I'm the pastor is now four weeks into our life together in a new worship facility. The end result of much prayer, clear guidance from God, miraculous provision, amazing financial generosity, and talented craftsmen, the space really is a jewel. But you'll need to see that for yourself sometime, if you're ever in Seattle.

But it's just a base camp. The point of the space is to gather so that we can collectively hear from the Master; He has words of hope, healing, challenge. He reminds us of His character through prayer, fellowship, worship. It's a place of fortification, rest, sanctuary, healing, and decision making. All of that, though, is with the intention of getting out, conquering the greed, fear, lust, and complacency that so easily hinder our vision.

Like mountaineering, there are habits that we're invited to nurture as the means for fortifying our lives, gaining strength for the journey. These habits, like Bible reading, prayer, silence, solitude, and celebration, exist precisely so that we can ascend. But too often, we remain in base camp. Too often the habits becomes ends in themselves. Too often, we're doing the right things, but never really achieving the objective. Because you see, the objective isn't to sit in base camp singing songs and telling stories. The objective is to live differently in the real world.

Isaiah 58 captures this masterfully, especially in Peterson's interpretation in the Message:

1-3 "Shout! A full-throated shout! Hold nothing back—a trumpet-blast shout!
Tell my people what's wrong with their lives,
face my family Jacob with their sins!
They're busy, busy, busy at worship,
and love studying all about me.
To all appearances they're a nation of right-living people—
law-abiding, God-honoring.
They ask me, 'What's the right thing to do?'
and love having me on their side.
But they also complain,
'Why do we fast and you don't look our way?
Why do we humble ourselves and you don't even notice?'

3-5"Well, here's why:
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Arguments Should Build Community, Not Lead to Defeating People

Winning an argument is easy, winning a soul is hard. Too often Internet dialog seems content to “hit and run,” but transforming and really persuading a person is harder. That requires being open to the possibility of being wrong and to staying around for discussion. Plato’s Republic teaches this lesson.

The Republic is a dialogue of surprises, often it seems to come to an end only to restart. At 336b, one these startling moments occur with the interruption of a wild man. Thrasymachus of Chalcedon was in Athens to represent his city. Chalcedon has betrayed Athens and Thrasymachus is in the city to argue that it should not punished. He is a rhetorician and the ultimate master of pragmatic politics. This urbane man is so frustrated with Polemarchus’ childish failure to uphold his case that he has tried to interrupt several times. Shockingly the master rhetorician and diplomat has lost control of himself. Finally, like a “wild beast he hurled himself upon us as if he would tear us to pieces. And Polemarchus and I were frightened and fluttered apart. . .” A new and better community had been forming between Polemarchus and Socrates, but Thrasymachus drives them apart. The formation of a philosophical community is presented as difficult inRepublic and in the end only Glaucon and Socrates will find real unity. Before that can happen, the wild beast with the tongue of a clever man, Thrasymachus must be tamed.

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03/02/08 Picture Update

Here is a little photo update from this past week.

Mid-week snow.

Mongolian’s love basketball. This is from an game at one of Kim’s schools (the nicer one). Kim’s students really want to play with me because I’m tall so they think I must be good – that game will be more than humbling for me when it comes.

This is one of the classrooms from the same school. I’m not sure why but some of the classes are separated by gender.

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February Reviews

In Bruges is a smart-alecky dramedy that finds two hitmen hiding out in the medieval city of Bruges, Belgium, a pretty little tourist town peppered with chocolate shops. As if the idea of trash-talking killers weren’t already run into the ground (thank you Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie, Troy Duffy), writer-director Martin McDonagh seizes every opportunity for snarky sadism and casual violence, then tries to switch gears and get profound in the last third. Nevertheless there are a few clever snatches and funny jokes, and Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell have fun playing up their conflicting personalities (Gleeson wants to go sightseeing, Farrell feels like he’s entered the ninth circle of hell). For a while, McDonagh manages to sustain a delicate balance of drama and comedy, but the task proves too daunting. When the mob boss (a snarling Cockney Ralph Fiennes) turns up to sort things out, the film self-destructs in an orgy of blood, sweat, and snow.
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Holding Your Breath Part II

(There clearly aren’t enough blogs being written about politics. Gosh, you can't find them anywhere. You’re quite fortunate to have found one, especially one as compelling as this. So I will press on with Part II.)

 Having entered a “stage four” of political understanding (after passing through youthful indifference, parental freaking out, and cynical smugness), my original question is this: How can I live out an interior, God-designed relationship with Jesus Christ while being governed by a man-made political system?

I’m moving into new territory now. I suppose I first have to test my claim that America is “man-made.” Is our country “chosen”—in the same way we describe the Children of Israel in the Old Testament?

I certainly believe—not out of some naïve hope but on the basis of good scholarship—that Christianity was embedded into our nation’s earliest ideals. (Why hostile thinkers try to challenge that notion is puzzling to me; it is hardly controversial). But the real controversy is whether we can legislate ourselves into staying that way. We have created an entire industry—in the homeschooling communities, our churches, and our private schools—which emphasizes the truth about our Christian heritage. But if our founding fathers did have a living, vibrant faith, one that was generated more out of their spiritual obedience than their political ambitions, then it seems Christians have slipped further from their early vision than we would like to believe.   

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A Band-Aid for Sudan, or Something More?

Ongoing, senseless large-scale suffering, such as that happening in the Darfur region of Sudan, leaves people feeling isolated, hopeless, and without meaning.  We wonder why one country, or one household, would enjoy blessing, while another suffers from natural disasters, violence, hunger, or all three.  The proper response to suffering, or how to help suffering people, can be equally confounding as the question of why people suffer.  Why does suffering,our own and others’, make us feel so helpless, so crushed?  Where does anyone find the inner strength to help meaningfully?  Will the next generation be indifferent to suffering, having grown up saturated with materialism and separated from others by techno-gadgets?  Or will they embrace a lifestyle of empathy and compassion on a global scale never before witnessed?      

As I contemplate ongoing and senseless tragedies, such as the situation in the Darfur region of Sudan; such as the AIDS epidemic; the slow restoration of New Orleans; or the fact that there are children in my own city who will go to bed without dinner tonight, all of the above questions crowd my mind.

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