Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Good, The Bad, and the Artistic

When I was in high school, an English teacher told me that poetry required emotional tension, and that if the only response a poem produced was happiness, it was not a real poem but a Hallmark card.  Since I was writing what I thought was poetry at the time, and since most of it was optimistic in tone, this naturally disturbed me.

The type of attitude that praises dark art and denigrates cheerful themes has become prevalent in art today.  We see it in museums, where artists strive to be controversial, through work that is either outright grotesque or simply so abstract and confusing that it disturbs the viewer.  We see it in film festivals, where the films that are seen as the most insightful and sophisticated films address dark or taboo themes.  People may not flock to see these works, but most would admit, with varying degrees of embarrassment, that these choices are not “high art.”

The artists that produce all of this “highbrow” artwork see themselves as philosophers, who are using their work to proclaim a message about life.  Sometimes, the message is political and aims at correcting a particular real or perceived injustice.  Other times, it is more theoretical, expressing the sense that life has no meaning or purpose other than what we impose on it.

Ultimately, though, the belief that true art must be negative reflects a worldview without hope.  The various worldviews of most intellectuals are outgrowths of various types of naturalism.  The common assumption is that there is no God or supernatural entity, so all that we are is matter and energy interacting.

The worldviews diverge when they get to the question of purpose, or of how we ought to live.  Some naturalists devote their lives to political or social causes based on ethical principles that they feel intuitively, even though their worldview has no transcendent base to ground them.  Others recognize the meaninglessness of life in a purely natural world and become nihilists.  Others try to create their own meaning, either by sheer willpower or through cultural assumptions shared by their communities.

What all of these have in common is that there is no ultimate hope.  Indeed, if there is no objective meaning, we do not even have a way to define what is good, much less a reason to believe that good will triumph.  If we try to create purpose for ourselves, how can we know that our purpose will be realized, instead of a vision that contradicts ours, such as radical Islam?  And naturalistic crusaders for various causes see their goals as the meaning of life, which means that if it does not come about, life is utterly pointless.

Obviously, if we wish to change the evil in the world, we must face it, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel.  However, evil is not the whole of reality, nor is it the most lasting part of the world.  One of the reasons I love Christianity is that it explains both the bad and the good in our experience.  The evil comes from the human choice to sin, which explains both the awful things people do to each other and the horrors of natural disasters that result from the curse our sin attracted.  However, there is an incredible amount of beauty and goodness in the world.  The naturalist must see this as a cosmic accident, or a trick our genes play on us to get us to act in ways that will help us survive.  The Christian can realize that the goodness in the world is objective and real.  In fact, it is older and more fundamental to the universe than evil is, because it was part of the original creation.  Moreover, God has a plan to redeem the world and to eliminate evil and restore the good to what it was meant to be.  This means that ultimately, evil is not the essence of reality; good is.

My teacher was right to urge us to face the dark realities of a fallen world, but her worldview blinded her to the good that is also real and worthy of our attention.  True art needs to honestly portray both the good and the bad to give a coherent account of reality.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

From Sapphire Throne to Manger-Crib

Although I haven’t blogged much recently, I have been writing.  Much of this was assignments for school that no one except my teachers  would be interested.  However, I’ve also written a few hymns, including this one.  A while back, someone asked me to comment on where my inspiration for the images I use comes from.  I’ve added some commentary about writing it after the hymn.  If you’re interested, read the commentary.  If not, at least read the poem.  It’s short and (I hope) captures the important concepts.

From Sapphire Throne to Manger-Crib

From sapphire throne to manger-crib, You come.
Eternity steps into time’s embrace
To dwell beneath the shadow of the cross
To trade Earth’s misery for Heaven’s grace.

You walk the winding roads of Galilee,
Their mundane dust beneath Your holy feet.
When sacred hands caress our dying flesh,
All sin and sickness make their swift retreat.

You laugh with joy, partaking of our feasts.
You weep and feel the sting of human pain.
Each perfect step brings near Your destiny –
To give Your perfect life, our lives to gain.

The Lord of Life submits to bitter death!
The God of Glory laid within a grave!
What love, to suffer so that we can thrive,
To rise, released from death, our lives to save.

The angels sing with joy to greet their king,
And I as well delight in You alone.
From dark, cross-shadowed manger You have come,
Returning to Your rightful sapphire throne.

This newest hymn began around Christmas time, as the first stanza may indicate.  It was inspired by a podcast from Stand to Reason, in which Greg Koukl was discussing Christmas and the Incarnation.  He commented that even at Christmas, the baby in the manger was overshadowed by the cross, since that was the real reason why He was born.  The image of a cross-shadowed manger stuck in my head and, a few weeks later, was expressed in the first verse.

The second stanza aims at pointing out the difference between Christ and the world he came in.  Jesus was God and thus utterly different from everything around Him, especially the sinful aspects of it and the brokenness that resulted from sin (which includes sickness).  However, He was still willing to engage with this broken, messed-up world and experience all of our lives.  Verse three focuses specifically on Jesus’s willingness to experience the turbulent emotions that define our lives, another manifestation of His participation in the world.  It then returns to the idea that all of Jesus’ life anticipated the cross.

I have written multiple hymns about the crucifixion, and I cannot write enough.  Poetry thrives on paradox, and there is no paradox more astounding than the crucifixion.  The cross brings together immortality and death, love and hatred, death and life, joy and agony.  It is literally the crux of all of history.  (Note: my one linguistic pet peeve is misuse of the word “literal.”  I only use it when it actually applies.  In this case, the word “crux” is literal because it comes from the Latin word for “cross.”)  However, this tremendous sacrifice is inseparably connected to the Resurrection, which affirmed that God found Christ’s sacrifice acceptable and forgave sins because of it.

I try not to make my hymns too long, but there was not space in four stanzas to say everything I wanted to say.  I ended with a vision of Heaven in which angels rejoice in all that God has done.  I included the reference to my own delight in Christ alone because this is meant as a hymn, and use in worship demands a personal response.  This is also why I used the present tense throughout – I want the readers/singers to imagine themselves as present during the events described.  Although our hearts are not now fully committed to Christ, they someday will be, so the personal response is actually an anticipation of Heaven.  The last couplet recalls the beginning of the hymn, only reversing it.  The hymn began with Christ coming from glory into the world; now He returns to glory, as symbolized by the sapphire throne.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Life has Happened

For all of my eager determination and commitment to working on this blog, I seem to have epic failed.  Part of me wants to make all sorts of excuses and complain about how busy I've been, but that is not going to change the fact that I haven't posted for two and a half months.  So, it's time to just move on.

I'm working on a post  which I hope to have up either later tonight or (more likely) tomorrow.  I'm also starting a collaborative blog with my brother.  I may also start using a tumblr account for my posts instead of this one, but if I do I will announce it.

Lots of exciting things have been happening in my life lately.  I've been looking for jobs and now have two options, of which I am fairly likely to be accepted to one.  I've started doing freelance writing for Breakpoint, and this Sunday I have a book signing for Transforming Light at First Church of Christ in Wethersfield.  At the same time, I've had a difficult few months because of the stress of my job search and some emotional struggles.  Still, things are going well overall, and right now I am feeling optimistic and excited about what God has in store for me.