October 26-November 1, 2014
Christian Vision of Society and the Church
Christian theologians in many disciplines are struggling to break free of the materialist and utilitarian assumptions of secularism in order to forge a new vision of society and culture centered on the Church. Steven McMullen reports on the work of “radical orthodoxy” thinkers who are calling for a new economics of gift and love to replace the worn-out and unraveling fabric of our capitalist institutions (“Radical Orthodox Economics,” Christian Scholar’s Review, XLIII:4, Summer 2014). This is a most encouraging report and summary, as it demonstrates that Christian thinkers in important social disciplines are looking for ways to “re-enchant” the world and to bring the Church to the kind of prominence in the social order envisioned by the prophets and taught by the Lord Jesus. The author adds to the thinking of these writers by pointing out areas where further development is necessary and suggesting helpful directions for practical work within the discipline. As more Christian thinkers continue to explore this line of thinking, across the disciplines and spheres of knowing, there will be a need for informed, visionary, courageous, and skilled pastors and church leaders to position and lead their congregations, in unity and collaboration with other congregations, for significant and far-reaching social and cultural change, within the larger framework of a clear and compelling Kingdom vision.
Los Angeles mural artist Kent Twitchell believes everybody has a desire to know God, even the most committed atheist. We all need to know God, and to fear Him and be inspired by Him in order to discover our unique way of contributing good to others. For Twitchell, mural painting is the vocation God has prepared him to pursue, and his murals declare his faith in majestic, inspiring, and clear terms throughout the city. “The most important thing we can do in fine art,” Twitchell insists, “is seek the truth.” According to Jim Hinch (“111th Street Jesus: The Art and Faith of Muralist Kent Twitchell,” Image, No. 82, Fall 2014), “Twitchell has described his faith on various occasions, and in varying terms, as a quest to encounter, and to represent in works of art, the unchanging truth of God.” Twitchell is a realist, and not all his murals are of a distinctly Christian nature, though they all aim at creating an encounter with God on the part of viewers. Twitchell says, “You never know who’s out there when you do public art.” Jim Hinch is an example, as he includes testimony of how Twitchell’s art aided his own journey to faith. Twitchell provides an excellent example of the kind of “public art” Nicholas Wolterstorff called for in Art in Action. He demonstrates the power of monumental art to communicate divine truth.
Public Art and the Purpose of Art
In another article on public art, Art New England offered a story demonstrating how public art raises questions about the purpose of art (Ethan Gilsdorf, “Who Owns This Rock?”, November/December 2014). It seems some runic carvings on a rock in Rhode Island, long thought to have been made by medieval Vikings, may have been the work of a teenage graffiti artist in 1964. The city of North Kingstown doesn’t want to believe it, and has relocated the rock to a public space in order to preserve it and to draw visitors and tourists to the area. From this episode Gilsdorf explores questions of art ownership and copyright laws with respect to graffiti and other forms of art. Art put up on someone else’s property, without the owner’s consent, belongs to the property owner, but the artist may still hold the copyright to the image. Grafitti painted by famous artists may be summarily destroyed – as has happened to LA’s Kent Twitchell – but the artist still retains copyright of the image. The art owner can destroy the graffiti, but he cannot make money on tee shirts from the image. By the same reasoning, the graffiti may be sold and the artist receive nothing but copyright for his pains. The introduction of rights and money into the arts can lead to art serving merely selfish interests. But even art produced for self-serving ends can transcend those ends in beauty and message, and can be useful in unraveling the conflicting aspirations and assumptions of worldviews.
In yet another example of science catching up to faith, reporters explain that the practice of meditation is good for you (Matthieu Ricard, Antoine Lutz, and Richard J. Davidson, “Mind of the Meditator,” Scientific American, November 2014). Neuroscientific studies are confirming what religious practitioners have known for centuries, that meditation holds “great potential for supplying cognitive and emotional benefits.” The brain is capable of being reshaped and retooled in emotionally and biologically beneficial ways, and meditation is the discipline that can perform these changes. Three types of meditation are reviewed, together with the benefits each supplies. The studies do not involve consideration of the objects of meditation as such, but only the particular type of meditation being practiced. Meditation can affect the overall health and volume of the brain, and even bodily wellbeing. We can only suppose that when the object of meditation is Christ and His Word, and the glories and splendors of the unseen realm, the benefits of meditation will be even more salutary. Most interesting were the authors’ comments on value of meditation for envisioning new practices, relational skills, and affective states – exactly what Scripture commends. Neuroscience does not hereby “prove” the value of meditation, as if adding to our store of knowledge about the discipline in some indisputable way. Rather, science is merely confirming what religion has known – by paths other than the scientific method – for millennia. What neuroscience in fact has proved in these studies is that reliable paths to true knowledge exist beyond the bounds of science and reason alone, and religion can be one of those paths.
On Meditating, Sort Of
Meditation, so I’ve heard, is best accomplished
if you entertain a certain strict posture.
Frankly, I prefer just to lounge under a tree.
So why should I think I could ever be successful?
Some days I fall asleep, or land in that
even better place – half-asleep – where the world,
spring, summer, autumn, winter –
flies through my mind in its
hardy ascent and its uncompromising descent.
So I just lie like that, while distance and time
reveal their true attitudes: they never
heard of me, and never will, or ever need to.
Of course I wake up finally
thinking, how wonderful to be who I am,
made out of earth and water,
my own thoughts, my own fingerprints –
all that glorious, temporary stuff.
Mary Oliver, Blue Horses (New York: Penguin, 2014)
Jonathan Edwards wrote of “the preciousness of time”, calling time God’s greatest temporal gift and urging his congregation to “improve” the time of their lives for the glory and Kingdom of God. Contrary to the secular view of time, which insists that all the time of our lives flows out of the past through the present unto a meaningless oblivion, the Christian understands that each moment of time comes to us fresh and new from the hand of God. Each moment is, as it were, a return to the Garden, an opportunity to get it right, before that brief moment slips through our grasp and hastens back to whence it came. A moment of time seems so small – a grain of sand tumbling through the present – that it’s easy to miss the richness, the infinite capacity, the blessed potential of each single moment for knowing, enjoying, and serving God. In his article, “Strange Days,” (http://www.laphamsquarterly.org/time/strange-days) Sven Birkerts reports how the time of his life has slowed dramatically during his convalescence from major surgery, so that he is able to see more of the things, focus on more of the thoughts, and experience in new ways more of the world which fills the moments of his life. He writes, “The convalescence—which is what I call it when talking to others, never to myself—has been its own period, distinct from all other periods, an island I will always remember having been marooned on. There will be times, I know already, when I’ll find myself craving the intensity of so much uninterrupted self, for such looking and thinking. Don’t we turn back with some nostalgia to those sickbed days from childhood? Not just because we were cared for, indulged, but also because of how in that widening eye of time the blankets became entire landscapes, and great cloud caravans moved so slowly outside the window.” I like that, “widening eye of time”. If we were better stewards of the moments of our lives, peering through them to take in the full landscape of each present, and unwrapping and investing each Edenic moment toward the coming horizon of the new heavens and new earth, how much more might we enjoy and enrich the time of our lives, and delight the saints and angels, as each moment rushes past them into the throne room of Christ, improved and adorned with more talents than when it departed an instant ago?
Most people, I suspect, would like to think of themselves as creative, or wish they were more so. Creative people bring forth ideas, inventions, artifacts, and even institutions that benefit others and, at least in some cases, glorify God, though there can also be a dark and pathological side to creativity. According to Dean Keith Simonton, writing in Nautilus (“If You Think You’re a Genius, You’re Crazy,” http://nautil.us/issue/18/genius/if-you-think-youre-a-genius-youre-crazy), creativity is a function of two primary variables: broad general intelligence (including “diversifying experiences”) and cognitive disinhibition, the ability to pay attention to details or to make observations others simply ignore or dismiss, the penchant for always asking, “Why not?” He observes, “Artistic geniuses will often report how the germ of a major creative project came from hearing a tiny piece of casual conversation or seeing a unique but otherwise trivial event during a daily walk.” To avoid the dark side of creativity, cognitive disinhibition and broad general intelligence must work together. These are disciplines which can be nurtured with practice. Most people could improve general intelligence and learn the skills of mindfulness, attention to detail, and careful observation. Situate and develop these disciplines within the framework of a Kingdom vision, and it may be possible to unlock the creative potential of faith for works of beauty, goodness, and truth on a surprising scale.
Assurance of Salvation
Bob Lynn’s series on the faith and doubt of college students exposes a sensitive nerve in American Evangelicalism (“When Our College Students Doubt,” The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, http://www.colsoncenter.org/the-center/columns/call-response). Increasingly, salvation and being a Christian are being reduced to emotions, experiences, feelings of wellbeing, contentment, happiness, and even fun, such that churches and their ministries exist to ensure such experiences more than to make disciples. Making disciples is the work of sturdy, diligent, skilled and caring shepherds, who are grounded in truth and improving holiness in the Lord. Pandering to emotions is the work of clever communicators, marketing gurus, and brokers of pop religion. College students raised on emotion-based religion find their emotional attachment to Christ insufficient to keep them serious about faith amid the swirl and swelter of new and more highly-charged emotions, and the intellectual body blows, of the university environment. We should heed Lynn’s warning and rediscover the roots and trunk of our faith, which is the truth of God in Christ Jesus.
The Chapter: Literary Building Block
Some cultural contributions are ubiquitous and so significant that they can almost go unrecognized. Take, for example, the universally accepted norm for organizing the material in books by dividing them into chapters. Chapters are not mandated by the UN; they are not some inevitable or inescapable phenomenon of creation. They’re simply the most useful and effective means for helping writers to write and readers to read all kinds of books. As Nicholas Dames explains in The New Yorker, organizing books into chapters is simply the most logical, economical, efficient, and practical way of arranging large blocks of material so that they work together according to an overall design (“The Chapter: A History,” http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/chapter-history). Chapters just make sense. And were it not for the fact that Christian writers in the period of the early Church adopted this then not-widely used protocol and employed it skillfully in their writings, the form might not have survived antiquity: “Christian literary culture took strongly to this form of intellectual labor; at centers of book production like Caesarea, the chapter was both an intellectual tool and a style. Figures like Eusebius produced carefully segmented texts such as his ‘Ecclesiastical History,’ and they often turned their attention to the segmenting and labelling of older texts. The chapter might have disappeared in favor of some other form had not the early Fathers of the Church made it their signature technique. Jerome, in fact, seems to have been the first to unambiguously use the term to refer to a numbered, titled segment of a text.” We never know whether some small cultural brick we might manufacture or lay will have influence far beyond what we ever dared to ask or think. All the more reason, is it not, for making and laying such cultural bricks in all our endeavors and in every area of life.
Eternal, uncreated Being enjoys
the sweet and subtle mysteries of song.
No sounds, no instruments, no lyrics, voice,
or melodies are heard. To God belong
within Himself alone, essential to
His nature, dispositions of a strong
and rhythmic sort, of tones both rich and true,
of harmonies and dissonances, beats
and grace notes, symphonies and solos new
and old – such music as the greatest feats
of all the great composers could not match!
No poet or virtuoso can increase
the Deity’s own music; we refract
essential and eternal Being and Art
in our slight compositions, and enact
again creation’s glory from a heart
and mind made in God’s image, as we write
our songs and poems according to our part.
Compose your songs, therefore, with all your might,
and by them joyously share in God’s delight.
T. M. Moore