“And there was distant music, simple and somehow sublime, Giving the nation a new syncopation — The people called it Ragtime!”
A couple weeks back I went with a group of folks to see the musical Ragtime at the Kennedy Center – a fantastic production of a fantastic show. I’d seen it twice before – a community theatre production that left something to be desired and a dinner theatre production that was quite good – but this production was amazing.
As I was pondering what to say about the show, I was struck anew by how the show is framed around the very issue this blog is focused on – the arts ability to shape culture. As that first quote (from the opening number) presents it, ragtime music is credited with “giving the nation a new syncopation” – inspiring (and reflecting) the cultural change going on at the time.
The musical, based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by E. L. Doctorow, focuses on an often overlooked era – the pre-WWI 1900s. The three main families – WASP, black, and immigrant – function as types for that era and are surrounded by historical characters such as Henry Ford, J. P. Morgan, chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit, anarchist Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, and Booker T. Washington. If you ever get a chance to see it, I highly recommend it.
A few more lyrics from the opening song:
“And there was music playing,
Catching a nation in its prime…
Beggar and millionaire
Moving to the Ragtime!
And there was distant music
Skipping a beat, singing a dream.
A strange insistent music
Putting out heat,
Picking up steam.
The sound of distant thunder
Suddenly starting to climb…
It was the music of something beginning,
An era exploding, a century spinning
In riches and rags and in rhythm and rhyme.
The people called it Ragtime!”
My apologies for infrequent posting (both recently and for the next four weeks). My semester has started up which will likely interfere with my blogging. I also expected my schoolwork to inconveniently not provide fodder for my blog (how much arts stuff can there be in Addictive Behaviors and Christian Ethics after all?) but that has fortunately proven to not be the case right out the gate.
For Ethics, we’re reading portions of Elements of a Christian Worldview (compiled and edited by Michael D. Palmer who’s my professor for this class), which describes six elements of a worldview — ideology, narrative, norms (moral and aesthetic), ritual, experience, and the social element. Concerning narrative, I was struck by the following:
“[W]orldview narratives provide patterns, or models, for the adherents of the worldview. The language of ideology by its very nature tends to be abstract, technical, and somewhat sparse. In well-developed worldviews, ideology’s role is crucial, but the average person finds little delight or encouragement in navigating its intricacies and nuanced distinctions. Narratives, by contrast, engage and capture the imagination. They inspire not only the mind but also arouse the emotions. They invite the hearers to envision and vicariously feel what it would be like to live out the ideological content of the worldview… Narratives may make us laugh or cry; they may amuse or shock our sensibilities. In any case, they provide models — for character development, for how and how not to behave, for what are and are not acceptable social arrangements.”
Incidentally, the five forms of narrative it lists are sacred writings, myths (stories involving deity but not necessarily considered factually true), historical narratives, literature and drama, and visual art. I have to write a short paper describing the elements of worldview, so it’s safe to bet that “Give me the songs of a nation, and it matters not who writes its laws” is going to make it in there somehow.
And while we’re on the subject of Story, you’ll want to check out Ben Arment and his upcoming STORY conference. Cool stuff! I probably won’t be able to make it out there (day job and all that), but the regenerate Mrs. is hoping to go. She, incidentally, teaches a not-so-small group called The Story each May where she takes people through the entire Bible chronologically in three 2-hour meetings. Crazy but cool. I’ll have to blog more on that in the future.
As I mentioned on twitter, the other day I watched a DVD of !Hero: The Rock Opera. Where to begin?
!Hero was created by Christians and (arguably) for Christians. It’s a retelling of the Gospel story in the modern day, supposing Jesus hadn’t come 2000 years ago, but instead arrived today and was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. To create a Roman government parallel, they’ve created “the world’s iron-fisted government,” ICON, which reminded me of Left Behind‘s post-Rapture government. This is a rock/rap stage performance, featuring folks like Michael Tait (of dcTalk and Tait), Mark Stuart (of Audio Adrenaline), and Rebecca St. James — the ones I’ve heard of — as well as T-Bone, Nirva, Matt Hammitt of Sanctus Real, Grits, Paul Wright, and John Cooper of Skillet.
I got my hands on a copy of the CD several years back, but never really listened to it much since the opening reference to ICON rubbed me the wrong way and rap isn’t really my thing to begin with. However, several months ago I gave it another try and, once I started framing it as a Christian-created version of Jesus Christ Superstar, I started warming up to it. Then, of course, my whole I-like-any-form-of-music-once-I-know-the-words thing kicked in and I ended up really, really liking it.
That prompted me to obtain the DVD (via Ebay) and I watched it last Saturday. Sigh…
The cast was obviously chosen for their singing abilities, since they can’t really act. The little dialogue (it’s mostly songs) was atrocious. The dancing was well-done but the set (which included continual video clips in the background) didn’t always seem to make sense. One of the biggest offenses, however, was the explanatory screens (e.g., “Hometown Crowds are the Hardest”) before scenes, to ensure the audience understood what it was about. We wouldn’t want to make the audience think, would we?
My biggest disappointment, however, is that their intention seemed to be more to showcase the artists involved than to create a show that’s reproducible (like Jesus Christ Superstar). Maybe it just seems that way to me, though, since I don’t have a wealth of rappers at my fingertips. Musical theatre has its share of Bible stories — Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Children of Eden, etc. — with varying degrees of Biblical orthodoxy. It would be nice to see a few more added to the repertoire.
I’m intrigued by the thought of doing a Gospel retelling that focuses on individual disciples rather than Jesus — could be an interesting perspective. I also think it would be interesting to retell it in a way where you aren’t sure until the moment of betrayal which character is Judas. That could be an interesting way to mess with Christians’ minds and force them to think.
Okay, so after my misguided attempt to splice and dice the definition of regenerate, it’s time to head in the opposite direction and embrace its expansiveness.
So, how can one be a regenerate?
As an artist, the most obvious way is to create regenerate art. What is regenerate art? Hard to define, but I think of it typically as art that is redemptive. Art that reveals truth. Since Christ is the way, the TRUTH, and the life, I think that ultimately anything that communicates truth ultimately points people toward Him and is therefore regenerate. L’Engle would describe it as art that leaves people feeling more Named.
Then there’s the simple fact that doing anything with excellence glorifies God, so as an artist it is a regenerate activity to create excellent art. Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire: “I believe that God made me for a purpose. For China. But he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure. To give it up would be to hold him in contempt.” Eric glorified God by using the gift he’d been given to run in the Olympics. (And, less well known, he ultimately fulfilled his stated purpose on the mission field in China, ultimately dying there.)
I believe part of my life’s mission is to help others grow into the fullness of who God created them to be. Why? Because I believe that is one way people bring glory to God. Author and missionary Elisabeth Elliot wrote, “A jellyfish glorifies its Creator simply by being a jellyfish. For by being a jellyfish, it fulfills its Creator’s command.” I translate that into human terms to mean that we fulfill our Creator’s command by becoming who our Creator created us to be. If he created you to be an artist, embrace it. I believe by doing so, one is being regenerate. (I also succinctly translate that Elliot quote to say “be a jellyfish!” which drives the Mrs. crazy since I seem to be endorsing spinelessness, but anyway….).
I also think an artist can be regenerate by way of their interactions with other artists. I personally have found performing in a show to be an incredible bonding experience (perhaps matched only by the bonding that occurs on a missions trip). An artist can be a regenerate by speaking words of life and love and truth into the lives of those around them. In their case, it’s fellow artists.
Okay, so how can you be a regenerate if you’re not an artist? Quite simply by supporting regenerate art and regenerate artists.
On the macro scale, that means attending regenerate movies on opening weekend (the only time it really matters) and taking other steps to see regenerate art succeeds (that’s what my blog tag for “Cultural Activism” is all about — hopefully lots more to come on this in the future).
On the micro level, that means getting to know the artists in your local community and in your church and supporting them. This can be financially (“starving artists” isn’t a stereotype for nothing) as well as through spiritual and emotional (they’ve got emotions in abundance) support. Decorate your house with the work of local artists. Attend their theatrical productions, poetry readings, gallery exhibitions, concerts, dance recitals, book signings, etc, etc, etc. Pray for them.
Give them opportunities. Recruit them (without taking advantage of them in a negative way) to help with anything where artistic talent can add value (which is just about anywhere). Walk the fine line between being encouraging and supportive but not accepting crappy work. Demand excellence. They’ll appreciate that. Just make sure you truly know what excellence looks like.
For far too long, the Church has distanced itself from its artists because it couldn’t understand them. From any and every perspective, that’s come at too high a cost. Work to understand them.
A friend pointed out this post by Dallas Jenkins over on Big Hollywood. Good stuff about the disconnect between Christians and Hollywood, the reasons for it, and what it hath wrought (Hollywood doesn’t know how to reach the Christian market and Christians have gone off to create their own films which — ahem — leave something to be desired):
The problem is that everyone knows good art should always put story and character above message. Message films are rarely exciting. So by their very nature, most Christian films aren’t going to be very good because they have to fall within certain message-based parameters. And because the Christian audience is so glad to get a “safe, redeeming, faith-based message,” even at the expense of great art, they don’t demand higher artistic standards. So aspiring filmmakers who are Christians have little need to perfect their craft, and Christian investors have little need to spend a lot of money because the message is going to be most important anyway. Add in the fact that the average heartland Christian couldn’t care less what a critic thinks–if anything, they assume they’ll feel the opposite of a movie critic–and you’ve got even less incentive for Christian filmmakers to be obsessed with quality.
The above points all lead to one predominant problem: young Christians aren’t encouraged or trained to become great artists. If a young Christian wants to become a filmmaker, they are often either discouraged to do so because Hollywood is so dangerous, or if they do find encouragement, they have a hard time getting proper training. There are two primary things that can foster someone becoming a better artist: one, seeing and being inspired by hundreds of great films, and two, getting a great artistic education. For better or worse, many parents won’t allow their kids to see some of the great films (because of questionable content), and many Christian kids are discouraged from attending the best film schools (also because of questionable content). This not only impacts potential filmmakers, but actors as well.
Therefore, when Hollywood starts to pursue more faith-based films and filmmakers (which they have), they find the cupboard bare.
And his concluding thought, which I wholeheartedly endorse: “We can complain all we want about how Hollywood doesn’t reflect our values, but we lose that right if we’re not producing great projects and artists of our own.”
My next shipment from Amazon will contain a set of CDs containing a German language sacred work. I can’t begin to describe how odd that is.
As the result of a college experience which involved roommates with varied interests in music, I discovered something about myself — I like just about any kind of music once I’ve learned the words. Those who know me know I’m obsessed with Broadway music, which makes some sense in this regard — in many ways, Broadway songs are more about the words than any other type of music, since they are telling a story.
What this has also meant, however, is that I’ve never been horribly keen on classical music (especially instrumental). And then there was Handel’s Messiah. The first time I heard it was at National Cathedral here in D.C. and I’m not sure if I ever had a harder time staying awake. I mean, how many times can they repeat the same line over and over? It was painful.
The regenerate Mrs., however, is a big fan, so this past Christmas season I got us tickets to a performance at the Kennedy Center. This time I prepared by getting it on CD and listening to it over and over again ahead of time so I’d know it better. Voila, it worked. Which is a good thing, since the Mrs. has concluded that needs to be an annual family tradition. (Incidentally, I was blown away by experiencing it in a secular setting — talk about regenerate art!)
So now, based on L’Engle’s recommendation, I’m going to give Bach’s St. Matthew Passion a try. But I don’t know German, so learning the words will be a tad difficult. Wish me luck.
I’ve been pondering my prior question. I do believe that visual media such as television and film spark creative involvement with their viewers. In fact, I would argue that any art that is experienced results in creative involvement to some degree. I would differentiate experiencing art from critiquing art, which in my mind is more of a logical analysis. I suspect, however, that for some “thinker” types like the regenerate Mrs., critique may be part of experiencing it, but I’m a “feeler,” so I do things my way.
Incidentally, I’ve always struggled with writing reviews — primarily of movies, but also of books. I think in part this is because I want to experience it, which takes me out of the evaluative mode necessary for a review.
Have you heard the saying that a mind stretched by a new idea never returns to its original shape? I would also contend that a mind stretched by a new experience (which engagement with art can be) never returns to its original shape. This can be both for good or ill.
I can think of a number of films that I experienced in a way that re-shaped me in a positive way – Luther, Chariots of Fire, Finding Forrester. I think the film Gattaca profoundly re-shaped me in ways I don’t really know – that movie has stuck in my craw for years. And then I can think of movies like Primal Fear which ripped my heart out of my chest and left me bleeding on the floor – not exactly a good experience (my roommate at the time had a similar reaction).
I do believe there is value in art that portrays evil, preferably as evil, but doing so presents an interesting conundrum, since evil does harm and if we’re experiencing art…
(This also raises the Zempel household debate over whether profanity is a sin and, if so, is it a sin to use profanity on stage. But I’m not going to go there.)
I’m continuing my journey through Walking on Water and am reminded of something L’Engle wrote:
“Leonard Bernstein tells me more than the dictionary when he says that for him music is cosmos in chaos. That has the ring off truth in my ears and sparks my creative imagination. And it is true not only of music; all art is cosmos, cosmos found within chaos. At least all Christian art (by which I mean all true art, and I’ll go deeper into this later) is cosmos in chaos. There’s some modern art, in all disciplines, which is not; some artists look at the world around them and see chaos, and instead of discovering cosmos, they reproduce chaos, on canvas, in music, in words. As far as I can see, the reproduction of chaos is neither art, nor is it Christian.”
And this (which has echoes of what she describes in the “fictional” context of A Wrinkle in Time):
“Stories, no matter how simple, can be vehicles of truth; can be, in fact, icons. It’s no coincidence that Jesus taught almost entirely by telling stories, simple stories dealing with the stuff of life familiar to the Jews of his day. Stories are able to help us to become more whole, to become Named. And Naming is one of the impulses behind all art; to give a name to the cosmos we see despite all the chaos.
“God asked Adam to name all the animals, which was asking Adam to help in the creation of their wholeness. When we name each other, we are sharing in the joy and privilege of incarnation, and all great works of art are icons of Naming.
“When we look at a painting or hear a symphony or read a book and feel more Named, then, for us, that work is a work of Christian art. But to look at a work of art and then to make a judgment as to whether or not it is art, and whether or not it is Christian, is presumptious. It is something we cannot know in any conclusive way. We can know only if it speaks within our own hearts and leads us to living more deeply with Christ in God.”
I think that’s what I mean by experiencing art. Only stated much more eloquently.
Incidentally, L’Engle also has a book on icons — Penguins and Golden Calves — that I should probably read sometime.