We are in motion

We are in motion.

Never in one place for more than a moment, ever shifting and growing and transforming, we change continually as we renew our search for what is true and holy. We seek the holy in the world around us, always on the tantalizing edge of grasping it in echoes and ripples. We feel its presence grow closer as we work our surroundings into ever-more-beautiful visions, create reflections and hints of what it must be, though we cannot see it directly. In slow-moving circles we orbit the ultimate, and attempt to describe it in word, paint, gesture, and song. This is the work of artists: to seek, to create. And in doing so, we leave behind us a record of where we have been and what we have become, revealing by slow process some traced outline of what we seek. Change is the only constant: searching, creating, revealing glory.

Change. This is our theme for Arts Fest 2007. Its genesis lies in a meditation on II Corinthians 3:18, the way in which we are transformed from one degree of glory to another, by the work of the Spirit, as we turn more and more toward the Lord in glory. Seeking God in the work of art is a never-ending process of trying to say something true about Something utterly beyond conveyance. While apophasis must ultimately be the endpoint of any attempt at expressing the Inexpressible, by way of the work of art we are able to extend our reach beyond mere words. Truth is conveyed in image, in sound, in gesture which, though rooted in a given cultural setting, transcend the ability of that culture’s words to speak. Art touches more deeply, and reaches higher, than talk.

That is not to say that we should have our heads in the clouds. Our work as Christians and as artists must have its feet firmly on the ground. The world around us is a world filled with brokenness, and to do the will of Christ requires us to live as real persons in the world. Artists are notorious in our culture for confrontation, controversy—even ugliness. Christians have often reacted by sequestering themselves in their own sub-culture: Christian music, Christian art, Christian fiction and film. And while the impulse to reflect on what is good and noble is a worthy one, creating a sanitized ghetto of Christian art misses the full depth of beauty and truth which can speak to us in the fallen world around us.

There is a prevalent confusion between prettiness and beauty. The two should not be conflated. While true beauty can be found in light and joy, it is also often birthed in pain, in blood, in death. This is, after all, how our savior came to us: in the gore of birth, the dirt of life, the blood and suffering of the cross. This is how our God renewed the holy Image in us, and united us to himself. We share in this crucifixion, and we also share in the resurrection, but the resurrection is not a polished prettiness. It is a beauty of still-open scars. The beauty of truth is a heavenly strangeness that needs not erase history in order to redeem it, a beauty that can be uncomfortable—even ugly. We need not fear art which reflects elements of this ugliness, this difficulty, this pain: it speaks to us of the truth of our fallenness, and of the path of our redemption.

Change is the only constant. Seeking demands that we move beyond what is familiar and comfortable. This is the work not only of artists, but of all of us. Caste in the Image of our Creator, we are all creative beings, and as we seek truth and beauty in creation, as we create our own works of word and image, we are transformed “from one degree of glory to another.” This is growth rooted in the Spirit, whom we reflect by seeking, creating, and revealing glory.

We are in motion. To grow we must be willing to move. To move we must not be too comfortable with where we are. Growth is challenging, sometimes even painful. But pain in service of truth is the deeper beauty, the beauty of love.

“The fact is that we are sinners!”

“‘Confess your faults one to another’ (Jas. 5:16). He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone. It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final break-through to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners!”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (from ch.5, “Confession and Communion”)

Concert review

Saturday night I went with a few Fuller folk to a concert at the Armory Center here in Pasadena. Southwest Chamber Music performed Luciano Berio’s Sequenza I for solo flute (holy fluttertonguing, Batman!), Rain Dreaming by Toru Takemitsu, and a premiere by a composer I didn’t know, James Newton. The evening was topped off beautifully by Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #5. Very nice programming, and beautifully performed.

James Newton’s piece was the Credo from his recently completed Latin Mass. We made it to the pre-concert talk, where he was interviewed by the music director for 40 minutes or so. Mr. Newton himself is a virtuoso flautist, as well as a jazz and “classical” composer. He talked quite a bit about Takemitsu, who was something of the glue for the pairing of Newton with Bach (the Berio was supposed to be another Takemitsu for which the music never arrived). Apparently Takemitsu was a huge fan of Duke Ellington, and both of them were formative influences on Mr. Newton himself. Olivier Messiaen’s music served as another inspiration for the Credo, in both his densely colorful harmonic language and in his faith.

The Credo itself was very good, although our seats were uncomfortably close to the baritone soloist, which meant that, at points, I heard a lot of voice and not a lot of ensemble (which consisted of flute, clarinet, string trio, contrabass, piano, and vibraphone). Especially during the instrumental sections, however, Newton had a fine sense of the ensemble; wonderful interplay and pairing of instruments. I hope a recording is released so I can hear it again, but properly balanced.

During the pre-concert talk, he spoke at length of the role of his own religious faith in writing the Latin Mass. Given the hostility (or at best, the apathy) toward Christianity found in many artistic circles, his openness was a bit daring, and more than a few audience members squirmed their ways through it. I was in heaven: here’s a brilliant musician living in two musical worlds, describing how Thomas Merton and Messiaen both so elevated the Mass as union of the believer with God that it became everything to him in both his life and his music. (Interesting side note: Newton himself is not Catholic, although to hear him talk one could be forgiven for expecting him to convert any day now).  I spoke with him briefly before the concert began, told him where I am and what I’m working on, and arranged to correspond in the future about music and faith and how they fit together. I’m kind of excited about that.

I guess that’s not much of a concert review. The concert was very good; the harpsichordist was absurdly good. I’ve heard the SWCM play before, and hopefully will again soon (William Kraft and Stravinsky next month!). Up next: just what exactly I am up to lately…