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Substandard Roadways

I found these old road signs in several places in and around Louisiana’s Chicot State Park. I had never seen one before. At first… I kinda laughed when I saw them. It’s a rather ambiguous warning. What exactly does “substandard roadway” mean? Are the foundations about to crumble at any moment? Did they pave it with second-hand asphalt? What exactly was wrong with the road? On this beautiful, sunny morning everything looked fine to me… but what unknown danger was waiting around the next bend? Sharp curve? Falling rocks? Potholes? Dead end? Animal crossing? Should I just turn around?

Turns out that these signs are unique to Louisiana, and come from a program that was abandoned in the early 1990s… apparently, at least in part because of the ambiguity. The idea was to warn drivers about roads that fell short of meeting the highest standards — lanes too narrow, missing or inadequate shoulders, poor grading, etc. These were mostly older roads that were state-of-the-art in their time: before SUVs and low-riders and monster-sized pickup trucks were available to the masses. They just weren’t designed to accommodate that kind of traffic the way modern roads are. These “substandard roadways” weren’t bad enough that they needed to be shut down… and while most folks never have any problem using them, it wouldn’t hurt to pay a little extra attention when you find yourself on a “substandard” section. In a perfect world, every road would be freshly paved with wide shoulders and flawless drainage… and there would be no accidents.

But it’s not a perfect world. We’re living in a fallen, less-than-ideal world. When we hit a particularly bad stretch, sometimes there are warning signs… but we can miss them or misunderstand them. So more frequently than we’d like to admit in life, our substandard understanding collides with a substandard circumstance… and people get hurt.

I was glad to see 2011 come to a close. In many ways, it was a difficult year for me. I felt like I could see the signs that something wasn’t right — just like those deprecated and ambiguous “Substandard Roadway” signs. I didn’t know what they really meant or why they were there. All I knew for sure was that I was on a difficult road, I was there alone, and I could only guess at why. And I guessed wrong. I was so concerned about a possible sharp curve ahead… that I wound up getting hit by the falling rocks I wasn’t even expecting.

And that’s just life sometimes.

After something like that happens… it’s probably human nature to want to turn around and go another way, to abandon the difficult road in favor of a different one. It would be easier… but if we refused to travel on anything but the best roads that met the ultimate standards… we’d never get very far.  And the most amazing things in life… well, they tend to happen most frequently when you choose the more difficult road.

I’m not making New Years Resolutions this year. But I do have a goal or challenge for myself: to take the more difficult road, to do it quickly (rather than delaying and avoiding it), to travel it completely without unnecessary u-turns, and to accept that some things are just plain substandard… and I might not be able to (or even need to) fix them all.

Does “fine art” matter? – God in the Gallery (pt 2)

The world of Fine Gallery Art is a small, exclusive enclave. Most people don’t understand it and — frankly — don’t really care. When it comes to art, people tend to enjoy what they like, despise what offends them, and ignore the rest. Art can be beautiful, it can be provacative, it can be disgusting… but outside of artistic elite and the occasional media coverage of an especially controversial exibit, it’s little more than a footnote in everyday life.

So it should be no surprise that there’s a difference in perspective between professional artists and those outside of that circle. When you’ve dedicated your life to something, you want to believe that it matters. You want others to acknowledge it… but the truth is, those who aren’t in the “inner circle” aren’t going to appreciate things the same way that insiders do. That lack of acceptance isn’t necessarily hostility (though it is likely to be interpreted as such), it might just reflect a different set of priorities.

Fine art clearly occupies center stage in the life of Daniel Siedell. He argues for the importance and prominence of gallery art. He’s passionate about the need for Christians to be active in the arts (tho his definition of ‘Christian’ is so broad and inclusive as to be almost meaningless). He quotes from the Bible to provide a foundation for his work and legitimize his perspective as a Christian author… but then turns around and dismisses the need for theology in an artistic context. Art, for Siedell, appears to trump everything.

He believes that art (especially modern and postmodern art) is a superior form of communication… and when you read his essays, you can almost imagine him annoyed that anyone could even think about questioning that premise. To him, it’s a no-brainer… the way we might look at someone who challenges that notion that the sky is blue. Of course the sky is blue. Of course art is a better form of expression than mere words. Of course it ought to be embraced and promoted by the Church. Anyone who disagrees… well, they must be counted among the dreaded iconoclasts – those who seek to destroy art.

The “Recovering Pentecostal” Connection

I can’t help but see similarities between some artists (like Siedell) and self-proclaimed prophets in the Charismatic/Pentecostal movement. Both claim an authority that is loosely based on Scripture, yet not submitted to it. Both claim special knowledge which makes them superior to the rank and file: an elitist mentality. That “special knowledge” also gives them power over those who believe. Both claim to be the objects of attack while unapologetically attacking others. And both would rather label and dismiss those who disagree.

And, in my opinion, both seem to be taking a peripheral issue and trying to assign it a prominence that cannot be defended biblically.

Does the Church need art?

The short answer is, “No.”

The Church does not need art. In fact, the Church does not need most of what has become an indispensable part of our modern worship practices. If you look at what the New Testament says about churches, you’ll find guidelines for church government, outlines of how services might be conducted, warnings about things that should NOT take place in a church service, and a strong focus on the (verbal) teaching. There are no guidelines for church buildings, since these really did not exist early on. There is no discussion of the intricate religious icons that would come to characterize liturgical denominations. There’s no requirement for pews, platforms, altars, stained glass, crosses, flannel boards, multi-page full-color printed bulletins, or multi-media presentations.

There’s no prohibition against these things, but they’re certainly not essentials. And all over the world, wherever there is true persecution, there are groups of believers who are gathering — often in secret — without the benefit of such luxuries. I would suggest that these groups of believers are closer to being “the Church” as envisioned in the New Testament than any loosely knit group of pampered saints here in the states.

Just to be clear: Siedell isn’t arguing that art is essential for the church, tho he believes it deserves far more prominence than it currently receives. However, whenever we’re discussing where to focus more time and energy, it’s helpful to remember what really is essential.

Can the church benefit from art?

Of course! As Siedell rightly observes, it is impossible to completely remove art from the equation. Even austere traditions develop a recognizable “style” which is itself an artistic statement. Mainline denominational churches may use stained glass, statues, and ornate buildings in their worship. Modern congregations that might meet in less ornate “multi-use” buildings still incorporate the artistic through their printed material (bulletins, etc) and use of media in worship and sermon illustrations. Whether these uses of art are successful or not, the intent behind using them is to enhance the worship experience… and they most often do.

Can the church misuse art?

Again… I think the answer must be “of course.”

Siedell focuses much of his praise on the older forms of church art — namely, the veneration of icons associated with Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.  However, other denominations reject the use of icons as idolatry. Their problem with icons has nothing to do with the artistic merits of the icons themselves… it’s a theological issue, and not without biblical precedent: Moses made a bronze serpent, and all who looked at it were healed (Numbers 21). It was created at God’s command, and used for His purpose as a positive thing… but then somewhere along the line, it became an idol and had to be destroyed (2 Kings 18). If we’re going to condemn the all iconoclasts, we had better remember that God Himself is an iconoclast…

If an object that God clearly authorized and endorsed can be misused… why should we believe that human creations are morally neutral and ought to be preserved at all costs?

How important is art for the church?

While it is clear that art has always had a place in worship, it also seems clear to me that its place has always been decidedly subservient to the spoken and written word. Siedell argues that art is a superior form of communication, a better means to communicate truth than mere words, at least partly because it transcends words and can mean multiple things to multiple people. But this subjective approach to truth (where one interpretation is just as valid as another) is not compatible with conservative Christianity.

I also find it interesting that even though the Bible does refer to many things that clearly had artistic components — everything from the bronze serpent to the ark of t he covenant to the objects in the Temple — none of these original artifacts are preserved. The Bible itself was preserved… but not the “art” that it describes. That tells me something about where God’s priorities are :) I wonder if rise of literacy has diminished the need for things like stained glass windows and statues to illustrate biblical stories… and consequently, diminished the importance of art overall in achieving the goals of the Church.

Can a Christian be an artist?

Of course!

But just as a true Christian will look at life and make life choices differently from a nonbeliever, so also a Christian artist should look at art and choose the things they create differently than the nonbeliever. Honestly, I’m not sure what this looks like in practice yet. But I look forward to digging deeper into this area.

I have heard it said that since God Himself creates, we honor Him most (and worship Him best) when we also create. But I think we need to be careful that we don’t wind up worshipping ourselves and elevating our work to a place where it doesn’t belong. We need to remember the warning of Isaiah 14 :)

Lessons to remember from 2010

I (almost) never keep my new year’s resolutions… so this year, instead of resolutions, I thought I’d take the time to write out a few things I learned this year that I don’t want to forget. (And I’m sure this will be a work in progress as I remember more things to add…)

1. Dreams can still come true… even the dreams you gave up on a long time ago. (In January of 2010, I got to go back to college after a 15 year “break.”)

2. There’s a huge difference between love and trust. Love doesn’t have an expectation of return, while trust requires reciprocity. Love freely, but trust cautiously.

3. If you want to help others, you have to take care of yourself. If you don’t, you might burn out to the point where you’re no longer helpful to anyone.

4. When you’re searching for the place where you belong, you will find many more places where you don’t belong… and that’s OK.

5. Charisma is no substitute for character and maturity… and charisma without true humility and teachability is just plain dangerous.

6. The best teacher in the world is someone whose perspective on the subject is different from your own.

7. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you will still fail. That’s life. Sometimes, no matter how much you DESERVE to fail, you will still succeed. That’s grace! Failure is not necessarily God’s judgment, and success is not necessarily God’s endorsement.

Overload

It’s been a while since I’ve posted… but as usual, I’ve been keeping myself busy. I’m just about one month into my second semester back at college now… and my schedule has gotten very busy very quickly! A “full time” student is defined as anyone taking 12 credits or more. I’m taking 21 credits. At Louisiana College, they call that an “overload,” and I understand why! I’m taking 6 art classes (which meet for 2.5 hours at a time, twice a week) and 1 religion class. I’m at school 4 days & 2 evenings each week. (Not counting the two on-campus clubs I’ve joined… and not considering my off-campus commitments!)

But before the college would allow me to take on an “overload,” I had to get approval from a number of folks: My advisor, my department chair, and the registrar. I had to explain why I wanted to take the overload, and demonstrate (through prior GPA) that I was capable of handling it. More than once I was asked, “Are you SURE you want to do this?” I was sure. I knew it would be a heavy load, but I felt like I could handle it, and as a transfer student trying to make up ground to catch up with requirements for my major… this was a smart choice for me right now.

At first, I was a little annoyed with the “overload” approval process. It seemed like a lot of hoops to jump through just to add one more class to my schedule. But, frustrating as it might have been at times, the process forced me to think about what I was doing and what the implications would be for everything else in my life this semester. It forced me to count the cost. Unfortunately, outside of the structured setting of a college, it’s a lot easier to take on an “overload” blindly. It’s easy to say “yes” to something before fully understanding the expectations. And in the open-ended real world… one “yes” can lead to years of commitment, not just a semester! It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to take myself through a college-style approval process before committing myself to things… even really great things :)

There will always be exciting opportunities. There will always be open doors. But that doesn’t mean that I’m supposed to take every opportunity or go running through every open door. The trick is figuring out what is destiny… and what is distraction. If I don’t slow down long enough to take myself through that process, seek out advisors, and wait until I know I have the most important approval at all, I could spend my life chasing “the next big thing” and end up with nothing.