Visions From Across the Room

Have you ever noticed the different connotation that art takes when you perceive it from a distance?

I found myself gazing at a re-print of Monet’s “Banks of the Seine, Vetheuil” this afternoon. It was a small re-print, and I was looking at it from across a room. It didn’t take me where Monet would have had it take me, however. The realism of the scene he painted from the Seine (where I’ve never been, actually) didn’t strike me until later, almost as an after-thought. Instead, it took me to a park.

A park in Philadelphia, to be exact. A place where I stood with a group of others trying to touch God, praying to the sounds of sirens and hip-hop in the distance. The skyline of the city was stunning in the background. Standing amidst that greenery, gazing at the skyline and praying, was one of those moments that stays in your memory for some time to come. The greenery of the foreground of Monet’s work, against the trees in the distance that morphed themselves into the Philadelphia skyline in my mind’s eye, took me there, forced a pause…I can still hear the sirens, still feel the throbbing beat of the music.

Nathaniel Hawthorne said that the highest value of art is its subjectivity, its suggestiveness. He stated that the goal of encountering beauty in any medium is to get more from it than the creator foresaw. The fact that I got Philadelphia from the Seine is, I think, that at work.

I hope Monet would be proud.

Intellectual Chasms

What is it about the Christian faith that wants to discourage critical thinking?

I don’t think it is quite the issue everywhere that it is where I live. As with many intellectual trends, it follows geographic lines. In the south, there is this attitude that everything about our faith lies in tradition. Seminarians and scholars can point to many a historical council and creed to cite the reasons they hold the theological positions they do, or why they believe that the Scriptures hold their current canonical structure, or why you should or shouldn’t say a certain thing, vote a certain way, etc.

Everyone has an opinion, and I love that about our culture. However, when opinion is raised to a level it shouldn’t be and labeled as “doctrine,” we have issues. When another Believer disagrees with you, expresses their opinion, and then labels their opinion as a “conviction,” it is supposed to have some hallowed quality at that point: we wouldn’t dare offend another Believer by questioning his/her “conviction.”

Well, I have this problem: I enjoy offending people. Because I see Jesus offending all sorts of people in the Scriptures. Further, as Karen recently pointed out in a conversation, He wasn’t ever offended that I can think of. Righteously angry once or twice, but not offended. Funny that we are so easily.

The true poison that this has introduced into our faith, however, is that we lose the ability to think critically and analyze something objectively. We mindlessly believe whatever has been taught us, because it is what a given community or a given family has believed for generations. The result: denominations and dogmatic theology and other worthless things that cause division and hatred…you know, all those things Jesus didn’t want.

Must we be products of our education and tradition without examining things with an open mind, accepting the possibility that there may be good and bad in what we hear? Must we approach our faith with stupidity? Somehow, I can’t believe that’s God would have wanted when He created intellect.

Just a thought.

Oops…I guess I’m not allowed to have those as a Believer, am I?

Tex-Mex Spirituality

God wasn’t around last night.

I couldn’t help but think that as about five of us sat around the table at a Mexican restaurant. Someone picked a theological fight. So people started pulling out their favorite proof texts from Scripture and pounding each other with them.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it started innocently enough. The group was just discussing God. Of course, then someone had to get bent out of shape and people started into the debates. Endless debates.

Sound and fury signifying nothing.

Initially, I was baited into it. But after a few moments, I couldn’t take it. God wasn’t anywhere near that conversation, I think, because it was bitterness, carefully disguised as academic banter. I had three years of that crap, though, and I couldn’t take it anymore. So I excused myself to the restroom.

As I reluctantly returned to the table, a little girl, maybe 4 years old, was coloring several tables down. She made eye contact with me, and smiled. Her eyes twinkled. Her smile was contagious. She had no presumption, no debates, no guilt, no regrets. Innocence smiled at me.

All these other people were talking about God, and I couldn’t find Him anywhere near their conversation.

But I could see Him in that 4-year-old’s smile.

Subjectivity and Faith

By the standards of many (especially many seminary students that I encountered during my education), I basically just cursed in that title. Are subjectivity and faith mutually exclusive?

I don’t think so. I read a great blog post on Infuze Magazine this morning discussing the use of cursing in writing by authors of faith. I know a lot of Believers who would stop reading a book immediately upon encountering a colorful metaphor, or who can’t watch a movie without a device to remove all of the questionable language, and I think that’s sad.

We forget that it is okay to be offended. You can come away from an encounter with any story or visual experience strongly upset and full of dislike, and that’s okay, as long as you can articulate why you dislike or are disturbed by it. Good art, in whatever form, disturbs someone. That’s good, because disturbed people think.

I saw a bumper sticker with a great slogan last week: “Comfort the disturbed, disturb the comfortable.”

Perhaps modern evangelicals are so scared to be offended because they so love being comfortable. When they are offended, they think. And, for some reason, the common misconception about faith is that it involves checking one’s intellect at the door.

When I read the Scriptures, I realize that Jesus wasn’t one who was afraid of being offended. In fact, He frequently did the offending. All of us, including artists (perhaps especially artists), are called to do the same. When a Believer writes a novel, and a character curses, that’s fine if that is what the character would do. It is the overall message of the story that is important. The realism of that character is part of what is necessary to convey that message.

So, are we to take passages of Scripture that encourage us not to use objectionable language as subjective? I’m not arguing against a concept of absolute truth. I just wonder how God defines “objectionable language.” I imagine it is probably different that we would from within our cultural and semantic moors. A commenter on the above-mentioned blog post also draws the distinction between using rude language and swearing, or taking the name of God in vain. I strongly disagree with the latter, and would never utilize it in a story. There is a line. There is a point where the subjectivity stops.

I just think most of us arrive at that point far earlier than we need to.


Creative Conversations

So, while I’m on this journey to re-explore human relationships, the concept of spiritual family keeps re-surfacing in my readings and pursuits lately. To be honest, its really annoying. Most things worth re-working in my life, though, typically are.

I’ve been permitting myself to succumb to my introverted nature for quite some time now. It has its advantages, certainly, especially as a writer. What I’m discovering, though, is that I’m isolating human interactions (outside of my circle of friends) to cold, clinical processes. Once again, I’m making my living as a counselor, and I suppose that has thrown me into this crisis of reconciling the two halves or myself: the analytical and the creative.

I was reading some material of therapeutic techniques with children last week, a Canadian publication that was a few years old, but still with valid research. I noticed that I had a lot of problems with the fact that everything was reduced to the scientific explanation of which synapses and connections of the child’s brain were enforced by which behaviors. I was actually disturbed, because, while that explains how it happens, it doesn’t explain what happens. As usual, the scientific explanation is a wholly limited perspective.

I guess where I’m going with this is that relating to humans in an art. It is best approached passionately and creatively, the same as a poem or painting.

I’m not degrading the scientific. It serves as a set of tools for the process, the same as a painter must use a brush, or a theatre designer must use lighting instruments. With every art there is technique, and the art of human relationships utilizes the technique of psychology. Artists who only utilize technique, however, leave out a critical component of their art. They forget the spontaneity, the creative synergy that happens in the midst of the creative process. Clinical interactions are the same. I’m glad I’m finding myself forced into more interactions, both in a professional setting, and in my family of faith, because it is forcing me outside of my reclusiveness.

Because, at the end of the day, I still want to be like the guy who gave me the coffee. I’m just not sure what that looks like yet.