A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 17: Jesus, Jesus

washing-feet-by-he-qi

“Washing Feet” by He Qi

At the house concert I was a part of last weekend, I was struck by a song called “Jesus, Jesus” by Noah Gundersen that my friend performed. I had never heard it before and didn’t know the artist. Turns out he’s a 20-something guy from Washington. Home-schooled and now a folk musician,  Noah fronts the band called The Courage. This song comes from his solo album called “Saints and Liars”(released in 2009). The lyrics are stark and direct. Really the song is a prayer of someone overwhelmed by the wrong in his world, which makes it so appropriate for many who enter 2017 with anxiety and deep concerns.

Noah’s words are below, followed by a YouTube lyric video so you can hear him performing his song.

Jesus, Jesus by Noah Gundersen 

Jesus, Jesus, could you tell me what the problem is
With the world and all the people in it?
Because I’ve been hearing stories about the end of the world
But I’m in love with a girl and I don’t wanna leave her
And the television screams such hideous things
They’re talking about the war on the radio
They say the whole thing’s gonna blow
And we will all be left alone
No we’ll be dead and we won’t know what hit us

Jesus, Jesus, if you’re up there won’t you hear me
‘Cause I’ve been wondering if you’re listening for quite a while
And Jesus, Jesus, it’s such a pretty place we live in
And I know we fucked it up, please be kind
Don’t let us go out like the dinosaurs
Or blown to bits in a third world war
There are a hundred different things I’d still like to do
I’d like to climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower
Look up from the ground at a meteor shower
And maybe even raise a family

Jesus, Jesus, there are those that say they love you
But they have treated me so damn mean
And I know you said ‘forgive them for they know not what they do’
But sometimes I think they do
And I think about you
If all the heathens burn in hell, do all their children burn as well?
What about the Muslims and the gays and the unwed mothers?
What about me and all my friends?
Are we all sinners if we sin?
Does it even matter in the end if we’re unhappy?

Jesus, Jesus, I’m still looking for answers
Though I know that I won’t find them here tonight
But Jesus, Jesus, could you call me if you have the time?
And maybe we could meet for coffee and work it out
And maybe then I’ll understand what it’s all about

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 12: Chagall, the Real Asher Lev

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Self-Portrait with Seven Digits, 1912-13

Artists inspire artists, art begets art.

As I continue to consider a crucial novel to my own artistic journey, “My Name is Asher Lev”, I was led to the real life artist that inspired, at least in part, the story by Chaim Potok. That artist was the Russian-French master Marc Chagall (1887-1985). Chagall was born and raised in modern day Belarus in a Hassidic community by devout parents. His gift was something so strange and unique to arise from his small-town, Jewish context. Chagall himself claims he didn’t even know what drawing was until he enrolled in a non-Jewish school.

The expression of his incredible gift was equal parts faith-inspired and  avant-garde. His use of color and dreamlike images influenced countless other artists, especially those of the Surrealistic movement. He and Pablo Picasso are considered by many to be the greatest painters of the Twentieth century. Picasso himself said, “When Henri Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is.” His use of crucifixion imagery in telling Jewish stories was revolutionary and directly influenced Potok’s story.

Below is a small gallery of some of my favorite Chagall paintings. See if you are observant enough to notice which painting inspired the musical “A Fiddler on the Roof” 😉

chagall-white-crucifixion-1938

White Crucifixion, 1938

 

chagall-the-praying-jew

The Praying Jew, 1915

chagall-the-blue-circus

The Blue Circus, 1950

chagall-i-and-the-village

I and the Village, 1911

chagall-the-lovers

The Lovers, 1913-14

chagall-solitude

Solitude, 1933

chagall-the-fiddler

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 10: Asher Lev

asherlevbook

“My name is Asher Lev… I am a traitor, an apostate, a self-hater, an inflicter of shame upon my family, my friends, my people; also, I am a mocker of ideas sacred to Christians, a blasphemous manipulator of modes and forms revered by Gentiles for two thousand years.”

It is difficult to describe the feeling I had when I first read “My Name is Asher Lev” by Chaim Potok. Sometimes a work of art lays a claim on you, as if it knows you better than you know yourself. This wondrous work of fiction did that to me. I have returned to this book again and again. There are only a handful of books I’ve read repeatedly over the years:”To Kill a Mockingbird”, “The Lord of the Rings”, “Heart of Darkness”, “Godric”, “A Christmas Carol” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. I suppose the ones you return to are the ones that mean the most to you and have helped make you the person that you are. But “Asher Lev”, because it is a story of an artist existing in the tension between creativity and faith, has always seemed the most intimate for me.

For this post I am going to let Chaim Potok do the rest of the talking, through the quotes of the book. If you are a creative person who also happens to be a person of faith, and you have never read this book, please – for your own sake – pick up a copy and read. Artists inspire artists, art begets art.

Quotes from “My Name is Asher Lev”, by Chaim Potok 

“I looked at my right hand, the hand with which I painted. There was power in that hand. Power to create and destroy. Power to bring pleasure and pain. Power to amuse and horrify. There was in that hand the demonic and the divine at one and the same time. The demonic and the divine were two aspects of the same force. Creation was demonic and divine. Creativity was demonic and divine. I was demonic and divine.”

“Seeds must be sown everywhere. Only some will bear fruit. But there would not be the fruit from the few had the many not been sown”

“I do not have many things that are meaningful to me. Except my doubts and my fears. And my art.”

“A life is measured by how it is lived for the sake of heaven.”

“Asher Lev, an artist is a person first. He is an individual. If there is no person, there is no artist.”

“Art is a person’s private vision expressed in aesthetic forms.”

“I do not know what evil is when it comes to art. I only know what is good art and what is bad art.”

“You can do anything you want to do. What is rare is this actual wanting to do a specific thing: wanting it so much that you are practically blind to all other things, that nothing else will satisfy you,.”

“An artist has got to get acquainted with himself just as much as he can. It is no easy job, for it is not a present-day habit of humanity.”

“Millions of people can draw. Art is whether there is a scream in you wanting to get out in a special way.”

“Every artist is a man who has freed himself from his family, his nation, his race. Every man who has shown the world the way to beauty, to true culture, has been a rebel, a ‘universal’ without patriotism, without home, who has found his people everywhere.”

 

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 9: Losing My Art-Wary Religion

st-joseph-s-oratory-of

It is said that God is in the details. That may be so. But in Montreal it occurred to me that God just might also be in the decor; and that, for many, the greatest way to a profound spiritual experience is through art. Yet for me in my upbringing, art so often had little to do with God and, subsequently, my gift seemed to me to have little value.

My family and I recently returned from a trip to the city of Montreal, the sublime and engaging jewel of La Belle Province. For someone who is aesthetically inclined, Montreal is an artsy wonderland. On our final evening, we went to St. Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal. This is what is called a “minor” Basilica in the Roman Catholic Church but it is massive and imposing. Just climbing up the various stairs, a feeling of continually ascending, is a spiritual exercise (in more ways than one). You can’t help but feel like you are rising up to something beyond the mundane of your life. I’m sure that effect is intended as the Basilica bids millions of faithful pilgrims per year to climb its heights.

For me, as I continue to reflect on my own artistic sensibilities, on creating, on the way these things impact my life and my world, I was struck by the use of art in absolutely every aspect of this place. From the soaring architectural design that is equal parts Gothic, Renaissance and Contemporary, to the countless paintings, statues, bas-reliefs and mosaics; from the asymmetrical and abstract cast iron gates to the stained-glass windows; from the various miscellaneous artworks that fill the place to the use of museum-like dioramas; from the subtle use of light and shadow to the warmth of wood against cold stone – St. Joseph’s Oratory is an impressive testimony to the role art and artists have in creating a spiritual environment and experience. There seems to be no corner, no wall, no doorway, no opportunity lost to use the creative arts to communicate the Divine.

The display of artistry and craftsmanship is very impressive but it remains foreign to me. Though I am a Christian, I am of the Protestant variety that has more of function than form in its worship spaces; i.e., many of the churches that make up my brand of Christianity are uninspiring, utilitarian places. I am currently part of a church that meets in a large, chilly school  gymnasium. It is about as spiritual a place as a warehouse. Let’s just say that the atmosphere of the building has rarely played a role in the experience of my faith, that is, in the elevation of my spirit or the growth of my spirituality. As an artist who also happens to be a Christian, my aesthetic sensibilities have taken a beating over the years. And I have often thought that my gifts and points of view, and those of my fellow artists, are not given much weight in my tradition.

Dating all the way back to the dawn of the Protestant Reformation, it could be argued that many babies were tossed out with the bathwater. Protestants take a wide birth around iconography, the use of statuary and relics and icons in prayers and worship. To many it is idolatry and akin to the occult. To some it is downright Satanic. This fear of idolatry and a belief that iconography is a sin led to extremely Spartan worship spaces and continues to influence architectural choices and decor in church to this day. In some ways, the Protestant church has been afraid of art. True, in the last couple of decades things have improved and more thought and creativity has gone into the use of art in Protestant worship. But it remains something not in the DNA of most churches and denominations.

I don’t really want to get into a theological debate on the subject or dive into the divide that has existed between the two big camps of Western Christianity for so long. But I do wonder if part of my assessment of my own artistic gifts has been influenced far too much by the Christian tradition I am a part of. That is, have I always subconsciously shelved that part of myself over the years because I felt it was less important, less viable, less of what I was supposed to be? Because I grew up in an aesthetically wary Protestant context, did I grow up believing my gifts and points of view were not as valid, as worthy, as spiritual as others?

This is going to take some thought. If there is truth to these feelings in my own life, then there are decisions and choices I have made that have definitely been influenced by it. And not just for me but for millions of other artists who grew up in a Protestant context, be they visual artists or musicians or dancers or playwrights, etc. If we have felt in any way that we have been marginalized or misunderstood, or that our gifts and sensibilities have been minimized or compartmentalized by the institutions that we were raised in, then we have all been deeply impacted and the church has suffered because of it.

I am an artist and I am a Christian. So often that has felt like a necessary tension. Does it have to be? I’m not sure. I would be the first to say that God has given me the gift of being an artist. It would follow, then, that he would want me to use that gift in my role as his image-bearer. Yet there are times when creative expression doesn’t seem accepted in my religious experience; when a kind of leash is placed on artists, giving them only so much room to create for fear that they might go too far. But keeping any kind of artist tamed and toned down mutes the impact of their art. And this is not right.

For me, this is a topic I am going to have to explore further. It is getting at the very heart of who I am and the uncomfortable dichotomy I have felt for many, many years. If you are an artist reading this, and also someone who follows God, I wonder if you have felt similar things, either consciously or unconsciously? Maybe it’s time to lose my aesthetically wary religion and embrace a way of following Christ that embraces me and my artist brothers and sisters.  This will take some serious thought. Stay tuned…

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I’m Stupid, Dangerous and Christian, Too

SouthParkJesusThe first couple of sentences from a recent Facebook post from Anne LaMott:

“I am reluctant to say I heard directly from God the other day, because somehow Bill Maher or one of the other fundamentalists might get word of it, and condemn me as being as stupid and dangerous as Mother Theresa or the Parisian terrorists.

But I did hear from God. So sue me.”

In the days following the terrorist attacks in Paris, I watched Bill Maher’s interview with Jimmy Kimmel, the one in which Maher referred to all religions as “stupid and dangerous”. The logical next step in a statement like that is that all the people who follow any religion are stupid and dangerous.

Think about that for a second…

Done? Okay, let’s move on.

I am a Christian, a believer in Jesus Christ. To some I would be labeled as a follower of a religion. I tend to argue with that idea because I don’t see myself that way. My definition of religion is a human-based search for God. As such, religions are our attempts at getting closer to God, understanding him better, appeasing him if need be; in other words, our human attempts to bridge the gap between the human and the divine.

One way of looking at the religions of the world is as many paths leading up the same mountain. At the summit of the climb up these paths is the same destination: God.

By that definition, I don’t feel that being a Christian means I’m part of a religion. My view of Christianity is that it is the story of God’s search for humanity. In other words, it has very little to do with my attempts to get closer to God. Instead, it has a great deal to do with God’s actions to get closer to me, to bridge the gap between the human and the divine through his Son Jesus.

Christianity, then, is the story of God coming down the mountain to us. Hence, not a religion in the conventional sense.

But Bill Maher would most certainly say I was a follower of a religion; a stupid and dangerous religion. So just for the sake of this post (and to make Bill happy) I will say I am a follower of a religion.

Now let’s examine that “stupid and dangerous” part.

In her quote, Anne LaMott throws out the name of Mother Theresa to make the point of how she feels about the “stupid and dangerous” tag. That made me laugh. I’ve always found Anne LaMott to be way funnier than Bill Maher anyway; but by throwing out the name of an esteemed and venerated Christian, she wasn’t just making a joke, she was also throwing down a gauntlet of sorts.

The kind of blanket statement made my Maher is indeed something associated with fundamentalism. Ironically, the very thing, as an oft self-proclaimed liberal, he would despise. Certainly it is a close-minded statement and one that leaves no room for an understanding of those you don’t agree with. If that ain’t fundamentalist, I don’t know what is! In fact, one who levies those kinds of statements might be labeled as stupid and dangerous by some.

Wow. Things that make you go, “Hmmmmm.”

But I am not in the business of fundamentalist rhetoric. I think Bill Maher is actually a very intelligent man. Likely he believes that what he does and says will lead to a more peaceful and harmonious world, too. In other words, he feels what he stands for is smart and helpful. From the positive side of things, when he is not tearing a strip off of something or someone he doesn’t agree with, he is certainly motivated in life by the belief in what is Good, Beautiful and True.

To Bill Maher, this may be called Atheism or Secular Humanism. If that is the path you’ve chosen, Bill, go for it.

But back to the fundamentalist feel of labeling all religions and, by association, all followers of religion as “stupid and dangerous”: This statement is overwhelmed and soundly defeated by the vast amount of evidence to the contrary. This evidence exists not only in history but in the present day.

My experience of religion is almost exclusively as a Christian so I am going to counter the “stupid and dangerous” tag from that angle. What I see that contradicts that blanket statement is profound and world-transforming.

Here are a few examples from history of the “stupid and dangerous” people who have been followers of Christ:

  • Sir Isaac Newton
  • Florence Nightingale
  • Nelson Mandela
  • Anne Sullivan
  • Rosa Parks
  • Rembrandt
  • Helen Prejean
  • C.S. Lewis
  • Augustine
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • William Wilberforce
  • Corrie ten Boom
  • Jimmy Carter
  • Thomas Aquinas
  • Erasmus
  • Vincent Van Gogh
  • Maya Angelou
  • Abraham Lincoln

I could go on and on. The contributions to history, to medicine, to science, to justice, to literature, to art, to peace, to philosophy and to every other area of the human endeavor by Christians over the centuries is vast and varied. In the west we value democracy, our health care and our education so highly and yet rarely admit that it was on the foundation of Christianity that so many of these things were built. It was Christians, motivated by their faith and their desire to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, that formed world-wide organizations like Habitat for Humanity and World Vision, impacting thousands of lives in our world today.

In other words, we owe so much to so many who were motivated in life by the belief in what is Good, Beautiful and True. They also happened to be followers of a religion.

More things that make you go, “Hmmmmm.”

The “stupid and dangerous” label hurled out by Bill Maher frustrated me. I understand on one level where he’s coming from. Much hurt and pain and death and war has arisen from religion. Much blood has been shed in the name of God. But in no way could I ever slap a label on all the Christians I know that puts them in the same category as a suicide bomber or a fanatical crusader.

I get frustrated by blanket statements like this from atheists because of the real flesh-and-blood examples in my own life of Christians who are so completely the opposite.

I have personally known Christians who have taken young, pregnant women into their homes, given them stability and compassion, seen them through the birth of their child and into the next step in their lives.

I know many Christians who have fostered children who come from difficult and often traumatic family backgrounds, given them unconditional love and a sense of self-esteem, and assisted them to become confident adults.

I know many Christians who have adopted children from war-ravaged and AIDS-plagued countries; Christians who have given homeless people a home; Christians who have started community gardens; Christians who daily support individuals with developmental disabilities so severe they can be a danger to themselves and others; Christians who have traveled to dangerous areas of the world to bring health, education, community support and disaster relief; Christians who give thousands and thousands of dollars a year to organizations that care for the poor, widows, orphans, dispossessed and marginalized.

And I know Christians who have loved me regardless of how unlovable I am; Christians who have generously given me so much even though they had very little to give; Christians who have supported me and my family through mental illness, depression and anxiety; Christians who have willingly volunteered their time, energy and resources on my behalf.

If that is stupid and dangerous, then Lord, make me guilty of being stupid and dangerous more often.

Ultimately, pointing the finger at religions as being the source of all evil is simple-minded and myopic. We all, equally – religious or not – share in the darkness that can envelope the world. And we all, equally – religious or not – share the responsibility to bring light that can overcome that darkness.

I would much rather work side-by-side with the atheist I see as intelligent and compassionate than go head-to-head with the one who sees me as stupid and dangerous. Wouldn’t that go much farther in bringing what is Good, Beautiful and True into our shared existence?

I may not be the sharpest Christian in the box but that makes a lot of sense to me.