Archive for the ‘art and culture’ Category

Visual Education

December 11, 2017

GiottoLet me say up front that I possess at best a layman’s knowledge of art. Please, feel free to offer correction or clarification. I’d appreciate the help.

I spent two weeks in Tuscany this fall, and saw a lot of religious art. Some was extraordinarily beautiful (Botticelli) and some magnificent (Michelangelo); some, in parish churches or small chapels, was very ordinary. But the ordinary had a function just as much as the magnificent. It’s that function I want to comment on.

Churches are everywhere in Italy, and within the churches, so is art. Every church, large or small, rich or poor, had art, and the purpose of the art was instruction. Worshippers were mostly illiterate, and even for those who could read, no Bibles were available. The art was their Bible. Many of the churches I visited were so crammed with art you could spend days, perhaps weeks, studying all the paintings, frescoes, windows, statues and mosaics.

They had a kind of curriculum. At its cornerstones are certain scenes revisited again and again: the Annunciation, the Crucifixion, Mary and baby Jesus, Mary crowned Queen of heaven, the Last Judgment. There is also, less frequently: Adam and Eve, the Holy Family, the visit of the magi, the slaughter of the innocents, the pieta, the burial of Jesus. Many other biblical stories and many saints, prophets and apostles are portrayed. (For a quick refresher, google “Italian religious art” and click on “images.”)

Even if you know your Bible well, it’s not always easy to decipher who is who, but there are little tricks. (John always has a hair garment; Peter gets keys, and so on.) I assume that in those days before trains or cars, most people were familiar with only one or at most a handful of churches. Priests or nuns or parents explained the art to them. Worshipers grew up knowing who was pictured in their church as well as modern church-goers know where to find the Psalms in their Bible.

Two other elements pervade the paintings and make them difficult for modern people. One is invisible elements made visible. There are many angels, big and small, and not just the few that you find in the biblical stories. There are sometimes demons, too. Doves and other symbols signal the Holy Spirit. Haloes around the heads of some (not all) the godly people suggest an invisible but powerful sanctity. Add to that, there are often people in the paintings and mosaics who don’t belong there, historically speaking: popes and prophets and saints who lived hundreds of years later or before the events pictured. Sometimes the artist himself is there.

That is the second element: the obliteration of time. Renaissance art witnesses to real, historical people. These are not symbols or fantasy figures, but human beings, like us. Yet, time does not seem to be a barrier. Popes and princes and donors witness the crucifixion or worship Jesus in the manger. They could not be there, historically speaking, but in faith they are.

By faith I mean “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” The people who worshiped in those churches saw no angels. Nobody they knew sported a halo. Most of them were farmers or tradespeople, who lived by material facts. Why, and how, could they believe anything beyond what met their eyes? They needed faith.

The art is meant to help them grasp the unseen–that angels and demons are all around, that popes and prophets are witnesses, that the court of heaven hangs just over their heads. When they enter the church (as they do, week by week) they encounter an interpretation of reality that expands their vision and touches eternity. Did everyone believe? Of course not. But some did. Without the art, would anyone?

And we, who have no such art in our churches: what do we believe?

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Christmas Carols

December 6, 2017

My father has been gone for 12 years. I think of him often at this time of year, because he so loved music, and particularly Christmas music. Thanks to him I grew up listening every Christmas to a record of the King’s College Choir (in Cambridge, England) singing Lessons and Carols. The sound of those angelic voices singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” in the reverberating space of the college chapel moved something elemental in me. It might have been a sound from another world, unlike anything I knew in plain, foggy Fresno, California. In some small way I learned from that music the meaning of transcendence–a concept that, otherwise, I could not have taken in.

The story of Jesus’ birth touches us at a very deep level. You can say all you want about the doctrine of the incarnation, but we feel and understand it through our senses and our emotions, just as much or more than our intellects.

This connection often comes through music. What astonishing, multi-faceted beauty in song has been inspired by Christmas–and I am not referring to “White Christmas.”

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Our deep longing, and hope beyond hope, are caught in that plaintive song.

“Joy to the World–the Lord is Come” occupies the other end of the spectrum. It is really a chorus of the Second Coming, when Jesus’ kingdom is fulfilled. “No more let sin and sorrow grow, or thorns infest the land.” Emmanuel has come, and with dash and vigor “Joy to the World” erupts with the news.

“O How a Rose E’er Blooming.” The delicacy, the utter silence with which the astonishing answer to our prayers is revealed. Jesus unfurls, like a rose.

Many of the carols capture this quiet magic. “What Child is This?”–as if to say, what am I seeing? Can I believe it?

“O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.” It begins in the stillness of the night, unnoticed by anyone important. So it has always been, and so it remains today.

“Silent Night, Holy Night.” This is perhaps the greatest of all the carols. Simplicity and calm pervade the music and the words. When we sing it together, for a few moments all is calm, all is bright.

“O Come, All Ye Faithful.” The story calls us. Joyful and triumphant, we join in. O come, let us adore him.

“Ah, dearest Jesus, holy Child, make thee a bed, soft, undefiled, within my heart.” These are Martin Luther’s words. The story calls us, and we call back to the one who makes the story. “Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay close by me forever, and love me, I pray. Bless all the dear children in thy tender care. And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.”

 

A Couple of Cultural Notes

January 12, 2017

Book Recommendation: News of the World is a great yarn, set in a very interesting time (1870 Texas), and beautifully written. The relationship between an old man and a very young girl who’s been a captive of the Kiowa is the heart of the book, but there’s plenty of adventure too.

Movie: Queen of Katwe is a story of some slum kids in Uganda who take up chess. It captures the rhythms of life in East Africa way better than any other movie I’ve seen. A sweet story, with the settings, the accents, the wordings, the clothes, the eyes, the attitudes spot on. This is some kind of miracle: a classically Disney inspirational story, but the look and feel are not Hollywoodized at all. Anybody who loves Africa should see it.

Publishing Woes

September 23, 2016

Everybody knows that the digital revolution has changed publishing. You can read long analyses of what is new and where the industry is going, if you want to. A lot of that will bore to tears anyone who isn’t directly involved. For most people, only two questions matter: are good books being written, and can I get them? The answers are yes and yes.

However, I think you might find it interesting to gain a close-up view of the problems of publishing as I experience them—problems that mirror some of the problems of American society today.

I’ve published many books over the decades, and I have absolutely no reason to complain. However, I’m writing a different kind of book than any I have in the past, and I’m experiencing a different reality.

I’ve written a novel, and it is far-and-away the best thing I’ve ever written. I say that with confidence because I’ve had six or eight readers review it and they’ve been strikingly positive. Besides, I feel it in my gut.

It’s a contemporary story based in an urban gospel mission. In fact, that’s my working title: Gospel Mission. It focuses on a handful of people involved with the mission’s residential drug and alcohol rehab program. The ethos is fundamentalist/evangelical. It’s a story of addiction and recovery, life and death, God and destruction, plus a developer trying to move the mission out of a neighborhood he wants to gentrify, and his skullduggery that almost wrecks the mission. It’s a compelling read, by all accounts.

The problem is getting somebody to publish it. Sure, I know, that’s a problem for most novelists. But this is an interesting case, best summed up in an email I recently received from a literary agent.

She liked the book, a lot. This agent can be blunt, but everything she wrote was laudatory. After considerable prose devoted to the book’s virtues, she wrote:

“Having said all that, I am stymied as to what sort of publisher would be interested in the project. It’s told mainly from men’s point of view, and [Christian publishers] struggle to make books written mostly about men work. It’s hard to find the audience. I don’t, by any means, think this is a book that would only appeal to men. (I certainly enjoyed it.) But women have to be given encouragement to read such books, and publishers seem inept at finding readers for novels that don’t have a “just right” sort of hook. A summary of the story wouldn’t drive women to the book, nor does the title. I couldn’t think of an angle that might work.

“And it’s not a general market book–way too much religion in it.”

According to her, I’m stuck in a publishing black hole. General publishers won’t give the time of day to anything so evangelical. And Christian publishers only know how to publish inspirational women’s fiction.

Isn’t that a reflection of our post-Christian western world? Religion remains an important reality to a great proportion of society, but that reality doesn’t make the cultural mainstream—except, maybe, in some exotic or historical form. People of faith are cordoned off—or cordon themselves off–into a cultural ghetto.

And when you turn to specifically Christian institutions, they have become extremely narrow. They only embrace a small slice of society, and they don’t have the money or the imagination to take chances on a wider audience. They stay in their ghetto.

This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon, but I think it’s gotten worse with the changes in publishing since Amazon became the biggest player and bookstores fell on hard times. There is less bandwidth in books that get published, and less willingness on the part of publishers to take on risk.

Fortunately, another change in publishing means that I can publish myself. I will, if that’s my best option, though I would far rather leave the publishing to somebody who knows what they are doing. Leave me to write! One way or another, Gospel Mission will get published. I’ll let you know when that happens.

 

 

A Different Way

November 17, 2015

For years my friend Fred Prudek has been telling me about the Moravians, an early Protestant missionary community that he much admired. I more or less rolled my eyes. Then, in the providence of God, our daughter moved to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which was and is the American center for Moravians, and since I am the kind of person who finds history fascinating, I’ve had little choice but to learn about the Moravians.

They established Bethlehem in 1741, coming from Germany to preach the good news to native Americans and to colonists. They lived communally and earned the respect of their fellow Europeans through their skill in various trades, as did other pietist groups that came to the new world with a distinctive religious point of view. What stands out today, however–and did in the 18th century as well–was their respectful treatment of the native Americans.

You can read it in their letters and written accounts, but where it shows most is in  their cemetery. Very recently I walked through that acre of green land in downtown Bethlehem. Leaves had covered the ground, and Popie and I had to use our feet to scrape off each gravestone to read who had died there. They have small gravestones set flat in the ground, all about the same size and all level with each other. Most remarkably, the races are buried together quite promiscuously–Indians, Europeans and Africans. Here is Andrew, a Mohican, here David, one of the first missionaries, here Thomas, an African. Among the 18th century graves there are many native Americans and quite a few Africans. They are all treated the same, and all mixed up together. That may seem trivial, but show me another graveyard like it. (Fred tells me that at another Moravian colony in North Carolina, the local settlers forced the Moravians to dig up all the Africans and move them in the 1830s.)

Through the Revolutionary War the Moravians had extensive, positive interactions with tribes living nearby. Moravian missionaries were welcomed to live in Indian villages, and quite a number of Indians chose to follow the Christian way the Moravians offered and exemplified. (When they did so, they usually moved to a new, separate quarter. There was clear choice involved.)

These hopeful beginnings were all blown away by the ferocious, violent, acquisitive colonists. War waged against them drove the native Americans away, and spoiled any possibility of a different kind of relationship–the kind exemplified today in the Moravian cemetery.

Another Take on Atticus Finch

August 5, 2015

A friend sent me this review of Go Set a Watchman. It’s really about what it’s like to live in a racist society after you become aware of how wrong racism is, and yet find yourself involved and implicated in it by the people and the society you love. This, the author Ursula Le Guin suggests, was the young Harper Lee’s subject, until an editor derailed her and set her to write a naive, white-liberal-self-congratulating book. She thinks the failed, earlier book (the one just now published) was actually a lot more truthful than the beautiful and famous later book.

Myself, I appreciate books written from a child’s perspective. That’s what To Kill a Mockingbird is: a child’s memory of her father, the epitome of goodness. Children see their fathers as heroes in a way they almost never do as adults, but the child’s perspective is a valuable one. We could do worse than to see the world through the eyes of a little child.

There is also a more adult tale to be told, far more complicated and troubling. As a matter of fact, no white man in Harper Lee’s society was ever as good as Atticus Finch. I say that having read a great deal of civil rights history. I am aware of only one or two candidates for the Good White. Almost invariably those who sought to be Good (and there weren’t many of them) got hounded out of town.

Today, when we have become alerted all over again to the persistence of racism in our society, we need both children’s tales and adult tales. We need to hope, and we need to deal with complex reality.

Atticus Finch and Bill Cosby

July 21, 2015

I’ve been fascinated by the upset caused by Harper Lee’s new rendition of Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman, her followup to To Kill a Mockingbird. Evidently Atticus does not come off as quite so morally heroic, and that bothers people.

To which I want to say: Atticus Finch is a fictional character. Another novel that uses his name is just another novel, and another character named Atticus Finch has nothing to do with the first Atticus Finch. The character in To Kill a Mockingbird is his forever; it was complete when Harper Lee published the book.

I think this way because I’m a novelist. I love novels, but I know that they are illusions, carved out with careful intentionality by their authors. Novels may tell you some important truths—I believe they do—but they do not create lives. Only God does that.

My wife explains to me that people long to believe in heroes during these dispiriting times, and Atticus Finch is a hero. I take her point. How many characters in modern fiction can one see as genuinely heroic? I am having trouble thinking of a single one, besides Atticus Finch. Perhaps the upset over Atticus represents people who want heroes left alone.

Okay, I get that, but could we focus on defending heroes whom we know to be real people?

My thoughts about fictional heroes apply almost identically to the trouble with Bill Cosby. Of course, it’s upsetting that Cosby has turned out to be a wretch. (Or is that too kind a word to apply to a serial rapist?) But there are many serial rapists in the world. The particular trouble with the idea of Bill Cosby, serial rapist, is that we believed he was such a nice man. We believed, in fact, that he was our friend. Naturally we feel betrayed.

But that feeling of betrayal is based on a hopeless and willed naivete. I will contend (and here I rely on my experience as a reporter, not as a novelist) that the public figures we read about and see on TV—the athletes, movie stars, politicians, preachers and even scientists—are just as much fictional characters as Atticus Finch. Enjoy their performance, and draw inspiration from it, but resist the temptation to think you know anything about the real person behind the performance.

I’ve had a few experiences of this, with Christian celebrities who were widely believed to be wise and saintly characters, and whom I came to believe (from personal encounters) verged on the psychotic. Unless you know people personally, and know them well, you have no idea what they are like. Their public persona is an image, as carefully crafted as a character in a novel.

Bill Cosby of public life—let’s call him “Bill Cosby”—was a lovely old curmudgeon, funny and wise and delightful. “Bill Cosby” represented a projection of something that the real Bill Cosby wanted to be, and perhaps in small portions could be. But “Bill Cosby” has no more fallen than Atticus Finch. And you don’t know the real Bill Cosby, and Bill Cosby wasn’t your friend. Thankfully.

Making Stuff Up

May 13, 2015

For the last six weeks I have been writing fiction Monday through Friday. It’s what I’ve wanted most to do since I was in the third grade. I love fiction, and I believe in the power of fiction. In my mostly-journalistic career I’ve managed to carve out time to write five novels; this will be my sixth. None of my novels has been anything like commercially successful, but what does that have to do with anything? I have the freedom to write fiction, and that’s what I’m doing.

I have to report, though, that fiction is much harder to write than non-fiction. I’ve written enough fiction that the techniques are not a mystery. I’m not floundering as I sometimes did in earlier novels. It’s just hard—hard every minute and every day. The reason can be expressed very simply: you have to make things up. You start with nothing. Every day you begin with a blank screen, and you try your best to breathe life into words so that people—real, three-dimensional people—walk and talk through your pages. So that real things of consequence go on. So that relationships develop and change. So that life is lived on the page.

It’s so much harder than non-fiction I can’t even put them under the same heading of “writing.” I know how to write. I’m a good writer. I am not sure I know how to create out of nothing. I’m trying, but I teeter on the edge hour by hour and often fall off.

All this to say: when you read the first words of Genesis, where it says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” understand that this is a stupendous statement. A novel is a shadow of reality; God created reality. From nothing.

Body and Spirit, Music and Words

March 27, 2015

Music is constantly changing, and it mutates not only from culture to culture but generation to generation. The only place this bothers people is in church. There, fashion-driven variability encounters the unchangeable. Somehow we expect that worship music will be as immutable as the nature of God. It isn’t, to the lasting distress of those who want young people to love 19th century hymns and organ music.

Music changes, and it has always changed. The biblical psalms were clearly meant to be sung, but we have no idea what kind of music was dear to their authors. Would we like it? Perhaps not: I doubt I would adopt 3,000-year-old Hebrew music any more than I would adopt 3,000-year-old Hebrew clothes. Thankfully I do not have to: the psalms are taken up in musical styles that suit the times and the culture. The Scots put all their psalms to music—Scottish music. The Dutch Reformed did too but in a Dutch way. The English taught us to chant them, and still do. None of these is universal or eternal. The psalm singing that was bedrock for my Scottish grandfather is gone with the wind. It is not coming back!

Yet for all music’s impermanence, there is no worship without it. And perhaps the variability, the flexibility, the variety of music is a part of its glory. My friend Joyce Scott, a South African, has spent much of her life encouraging African people to use their traditional music styles in worship songs. She is healing a historical wound: When Africans encountered Christianity they often adopted European hymns and abandoned their parents’ music. In many cases a very musical people became much less tuneful whenever they entered church. Joyce loves music passionately, and she began to experiment with Scripture songs as a missionary in Kenya; eventually, her specialty became training and encouraging indigenous music in the church. To every people and every generation, a different music—their own music.

Yet here is the interesting thing: we re-write the music every generation, but we do not re-write the psalms. The psalms as literature cross the gulf of years as though it were nothing. At least half of the psalms reach me without the slightest strain. Culturally we are far away from the men who wrote those poems so long ago—but our experiences of life and God seem not to have changed very much, nor do the words that capture them.

So the timeless and the time-bound are knit together. You can’t get a knife in between a song and its words; we respond to them as to one unit. Yet one goes on and on, and the other fades away with its time, and must be renewed. One translates across all cultures, and the other bears all the local color and spirit of its time-bound surroundings. The eternal spirit is in the words, but it comes clothed in music. Spirit must be incarnated in the mortal, changeable flesh of the tune.

We speak of mysteries. How do permanence and variability go together, making a single unit? We cannot say, but we can sing. All this dense reality—body and spirit, two natures fully expressed in one being–is on the tips of our tongues when we open our mouth to make music.

Hemingway the Creep

November 19, 2014

I have been reading about the Spanish Civil War lately, partly because it is my daughter’s specialty and partly because it is so very interesting in its own right. It was the Vietnam war of its day—passionately argued over, saturated by media coverage, attracting celebrities. Also very deadly and very disheartening.

One excellent, gossipy book is Amanda Vaill’s Hotel Florida: Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civil War, which tells the story of the war through a number of more-or-less celebrity couples that experience it: Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn among them. Hemingway was cheating on his wife and doing his macho bluster thing, writing dispatches that suggested he was seeing a lot more combat close up than he ever did. As Vaill writes of him—in this and also in Everybody Was So Young—Hemingway was a truly repellant human being. As to cheating on his (several) wives it does not seem that he was promiscuous so much as he was a born cheater, in a self-glorifying, self-justifying way. He trashed many of his friends in print, including people who had helped him a lot and put up with him a lot. He was vicious with those who (he thought) crossed him. He drank too much, bragged constantly, thought it was a great thing to knock somebody down. Ick.

But my daughter reminded me, as I went on about this, that he was also quite a writer. I hadn’t read him since I was in college. I remembered good things regarding the depressing The Sun Also Rises, but I was thinking that the rest was mostly Hemingway’s macho schtick. Which it is, I think. But with my daughter’s encouragement I re-read For Whom the Bell Tolls. It is a wonderful book, probably the best war book I have ever read. I can only conclude that Hemingway, when he stopped talking and sat down to write, became a much more contrite and controlled human being.

It’s a small reminder that people of great talent are human beings, and that even dreadful human beings may have something truly great in them. I like this quote from Philo of Alexander: “Be gentle with each person you meet, for each of them is fighting a great battle.”