A Call for Explorers

After decades of debate over the pervasive decline of the Church in both Europe and new the United States it seems clear that no amount of marketing, brand-specialists, new amenities and political “updating” has done anything but increase that decline. In the face of such a crisis, I humbly offer my observations gathered over four decades of carefully watching and studying this “Church in decline,” as well as recent experience and training earning a Masters in leadership that has allowed me to do actual field work in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I ask open questions which I feel can lead us in fresh directions if we are open. 

By Christopher MacDonald, Berkeley, California

The history of theology prior to Modernity had always been dominated by polemics. 90% of it had always been framed as “Against” this or that – and this is the way we have come to learn how to teach, envision and also lead even after the great divide of the 1920s when the Faith began to use polemics on itself and went downs roads of division and micro-division that have left it in a thousand tiny little pieces.

I could spend pages embodying this approach and, in the end, only add to a sense of loss, sadness and confusion as to where the Church-at-large is. I am choosing not to do this. Instead. I choose to follow precept number four and work off a “generative theology” that is creative, open, explorative, and deeply biblical. It is time we got a grip and started to move forward in faith, hope and love.

To jump ahead a bit and explain “generative theology” a bit. It is simply’ a theology based in agape love which “creates value in those it loves.” it is at once tied directly to the cross of Christ but also His resurrection and living Lordship now. It is creative and hopeful and carries with it disciplines that outwardly-imposed morality can never match. It is not based in criticising or being against others though it may find lines of clear disagreement and departure. It seeks peace and to serve through Art and Word.

The word “generative'” points to its creativity but should not be mistaken to say that it is generating a whole new fresh theology or theologies. Rather it is finally mining those rich corridors of theological ore which have been available all along but have been neglected in our seemingly unending need to tell other people where they are “wrong.” It is the unexplored country of “rightness” and beauty which scripture has always been the sole repository of. I will return to its beauty later in this presentation; but hopefully all that proceeds will be “generative.”

Focus One:Christ the Center (Theocentric over Anthropocentric worldview)

It seems that somewhere along the way ( I am guessing the Enlightenment) we shifted or adopted a larger a large anthropocentric world-view/ So much so we can hardly see that it has become the only air we breathe, our sole way of perception and our reference point. But scripture presents us with a theocentric (in many cases more specifically Christocentric) world-view. How might that deeply effect the ways we breathe in, perceive and interpret the world? What if this is, in fact, much closer to reality than any of the myriad of anthropocentric views?

A simple example from the Gospels would be Jesus’ refrain “you have heard it said…but I say to you…” (and the contrasts put forward) and His teachings on the Kingdon of God” in direct contrast with earthly kingdoms.

I would ask the reader to re-read the Gospels and ask honestly if they present a theocentric or anthropocentric worldview; and if the latter, how much are we missing by not adopting the same?

Isn’t it possible that our profound unhappiness, emptiness and even confusion in the Church isn’t just a by-product of our stepping into the central place?. Could we not all relax and more easily “accept and celebrate” our diversity of we located ourselves around a great rim whose spokes all led back to one core Center which was Christ Himself?  

I have watched while large denominations have had “Re-Imagining God” conferences. While it sounds mildly hip isn’t one core point that the God who is “other” chose to reveal God’s own Self in a way we could understand?  Isn’t “re-imagining” God while God is attempting to clearly communicate God’s own Self really at cross purposes? 

And God’s attempt has been by becoming not just sympathetic- but actually by becoming one of us in all ways even gestating in a womb for nine months.   

Of course more than this is revealed as well. God in Christ is revealed as the Center of not only Creation at its inception, but also currently (Colossians 1:15-23). He is also revealed far more as “Lord” than “Savior” – and important view as that is.that possibly explains why St. Paul would “bring every thought captive” to Him (2 Corinthians 10). There is no quarter given to an anthropocentric Gospel or even that general worldview. God does not exist for us; we exist and find our being in God.  

Jesus wants to be the Center and, indeed is so while we are not. He said:

“Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Focus 2: Transformation over a “Betterment Gospel

Our crisis of theology and leadership has to do with our confusion over who we are, where we are going, and the nature of the “Good News.”

Doesn’t the Gospel, at its core, comes with an offer of rescue? Is there really any real taklk in Jesus or any of the Apostles about “betterment” of our current situation and to somehow “Christianize” our worldy way of doing life? It seems to me rather that we are the Titanic and there will be no betterment of this ship only a variety of costly rescue and salvage operations meant to get as many people to safety as possible. A program of human betterment as the essential Gospel is like rearranging deck chairs on that tragic ship. It demonstrates a profound confusion over the state of affairs, where we are headed (for they would simply improve life on the boat and leave it at sea) and the nature of our passage (temporary).

Rescue must come first. It helps if you have some idea of what you have been rescued from but it is not a requirement.

Jesus, Paul and John mever talk about “improvement,” only being “transformed.” Metamorphoses – the taking of us as one thing and transforming us into something different is what they speak of.  St. John says,

See what kind of love the Father has given us so that we might be called children of God—and we are. Therefore the cosmos does not know us, because it did not know him. 2Beloved ones, now we are children of God, and what we shall be has not yet become apparent. We know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:1-3) [1]

Paul speaks of this transformation using the same word Matthew uses for transfiguration:

Therefore I implore you, brothers, by God’s mercies, to present your bodies as a living, holy, acceptable sacrifice to God, your rational worship; And do not be configured to this age, but be transformed by renewal of the intellect, so you may test the will of God, which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12;1-2) [2]

Here the contrast is specifically between a stylish “betterment” (the Greek word is a form of schema from which we get schematic; and a substantial inner transformation which requires one to place one’s whole self at God’s disposal (v. 1) as a means of personal existential sacrifice. This is said to be “transfiguring.”

On some level we all know this is true and possibly just avoid Jesus’ words about “taking up your cross” to follow Him. We fail to see that this transformative way of life is really the only avenue open that breeds freedom and life. “Amen, amen, I tell you, unless the grain of wheat falling to the ground dies, it remains alone; but if it dies it bears plenteous fruit.” (John 12:24)[3]

Amid a subtle American prosperity Gospel that is repackaged in a stunning variety of ways and churches which choose to only offer principle-driven ways of personal “betterment” we should note the decline of the Church in the West. It is as if by trying to compete as a Consumer product “Gospel” ceases to truly be vibrant “Good News” at all and just blends in with infomercials and the mass variety of other betterment products available to Americans with a disposable income, Suddenly Christianity is a personal “for me” investment not a calling and a relationship. You can see why it lapses into a kind of slow killing off of faith.

Isn’t the call to active discipleship (students of Christ in a school of transformation) much more apt to bring real change, enliven real faith and move people out of the roles of passive church consumers to active transformative life in Christ?

Focus 3: Depth Exegesis/Exploration over the Passive Viewer Consumer model

Jesus spent more time discipling His close group of followers than he did preaching, healing or doing anything else during His three years of public ministry. And through that the world was changed. Aren’t we doing the opposite – selling Christian experiences like something you can buy in bulk down at “Christco in a 5 gallon drum via our pre-packaged theologies, betterment books and programs for “successful Christian living?”

Does Jesus present Gospel in this way or through enigmatic parables that challenge? Does Paul offer such a slick package or careful and heartfelt instruction meant to grow men and women up into maturity (Ephesians 4:11-17)  

Megachurches are set up to accommodate mass audiences who will sit and passively watch a presentation. A few hours later can anyone recite the real content of the message or just the title?  It is a passive model – like television where the only relevant question is “did you like it?”

The Problem with passive viewership and consumer religion is that it leaves people unchanged and in many cases actually inoculated to transformation.

In contrast, an interactive, dialogical and immersive exploration of biblical texts and worship combined with active discipleship cannot help but begin to change lives. As Mike Breen points out “Most of us have become quite good at the church thing. And yet, disciples are the only thing that Jesus cares about, and it’s the only number that Jesus is counting.” (Building a Discipling Culture) .

Setup for Middle Eastern full course meal “reclining at tables” while studying Luke 7 (Jesus at Simon the Pharisee’s house for dinner)

In our latest active study: Adventures with Doctor Luke: Middle Eastern Narratives and Parables of Jesus, we employ a dynamic format built for exploring the text in an open yet also disciplined fashion. Sticking to Middle Eastern (Hebraic) peasant roots, more technical notes on the text are sent out a few days in advance so we are not bogged down in the minutiae of language studies or spend all our time on Hebrew poetic form when we really want to get to what is being said in the text.

I act as a facilitator attempting to draw out as many comments from each student as possible in each session of our “micro-exegesis.” I make sure to include quieter members of the group by asking questions or having them be the readers.

Participants are not only learning the Gospel of Luke over 15 weeks, they are also learning how to use the direct tool of biblical interpretation and how to think biblically while they explore.

There is always an immersive/interactive element. Examples can be found in the chart below for weeks 2-6.

WEEK 2    
Luke 7:36-50
Reclining at Table (Middle Eastern Meal during study
WEEK 3
Luke 10:25-37
Bandage imagined wound after oil and wine applied
WEEK 4
Luke 10:38-11:13
Bread, egg and fish behind the curtain as gift
WEEK 5   
Luke 12:13-21
Gameshow: “O Man!”
WEEK 6   

Luke 12;22-39

                Art Project: Lillies of the Field

Naturally, in such an open (but guided) format, theological and philosophical life questions arise which tempt the group to stray from the textual study. In this case anything major is put on reserve for “Round Two” discussions after the exegetical study of the narrative. Parable or both has been concluded.

The study itself is scheduled each week for one hour only so as to not be burdensome, but members have ritually chosen to expand the time to three to four hours of spirited group exploration. I attribute much of this directly to the participatory and non-passive nature of the format.

Variety of finished art pieces working off black and white print on gessoed canvas. Water-colors, acrylics, pens and colored pencils.

It should also be noted that such a study method places exegesis and biblical studies prior to theology (horse firmly before all carts).

In our study time we are simply free to follow the text wherever they go  “come what may” – not in subjectivity, but rather against the firm bedrock of scholarship and embedded in 1st Century studies that keep the study contextualized.

One student., commenting on the team effort, said “I really feel like an explorer!” And as every “disciple” is a “student of Jesus” we want to foster this reality. 

Focus 4: Generative Theology

Taking direct cues from artist and theologian Makoto Fujimura (The Brehm Institute/Fuller Seminary) and his book Culture Care, I saw that the same crises that happened in the Arts under Modernity had struck Theology at the same time as well.  It was just that this last blow, starting at the turn of the last Century all but extinguished any fresh theology from consideration. It was either being deconstructed  and reinterpreted in a culture of Skepticism that reduced it to a bland liberal moralism; or it was being held hostage by “Funda-gelical” reactionaries whose dominant paradigms involved fear and power. In every case it all goes hand in hand with a deeply anthropocentric world-view and then attempting to compensate for that loss via creating consumer religion.  

Makoto Fujimura, Charis | ID: 201206051 | 89 x 132 x 1.25 inches | mineral pigment and gold leaf.

Fujimura has envisioned a way out of the tragedy of Modernity in his work through “Generative Art.” Given the close parallels and root disease for both the Arts and Theology, I saw no reason that  “Generative Theology” would not also be possible.

What does that term mean? A creative/explorative and generative theology is 1) free to proclaim prophetically while being faithful to the biblical witness and 2) does not jettison what is valuable in any of the work which has been done via the previous approach as if a new vision for theology can be done in a vacuum or is the end-all and be-all.

That also means it is more than a peace-at-any-cost ecumenicism. It truly sees all three major branches of the Church as  common heritage and currently as One Body. Let them pretend they are not connected (as the foot says to the leg “I have no need of you.” They can say it but it does not make it true.

Does it mean we should not be on guard or there is no place for polemics or apologetics? Of course not. But let’s no longer be limited to only doing those things or thinking that is our only modus operendi.

Fr. Thomas Merton in 1968

In searching my mind for theologians in my lifetime who are, or were Generative theologians the only person who truly comes to mind is Thomas  Merton. One can argue that C.S. Lewis – when not doing apologetics- was also doing Generative work in both his fiction and in books like Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer and The Weight of Glory.)  But really it was Merton who chose new themes to write on and explore which were 1) not against anyone; and 2) were not polemics or apologetics (or even a practical guide to a way of life).

Generative Theology would produce those books – like the new ones on Christ’s glory or on the Great Christological Hymn and how it might be connected with quantum physics as well as the search for human meaning. And a new generation of commentaries not adjudicated by immediate American concerns or reduced to pragmatic “principles” (I call this homogenization) for use as consumer products. Theological pursuits not determined solely by what is politically en vogue, but which can draw from the seemingly inexhaustibly suggestive nature of the 66 books we hold sacred.

It is here that the word generative once again becomes important. Just as God is to be worshiped for God’s own sake, so great theology is to be down because it is true and it is at the core of being human to explore and document the full range of human experience. This theological expression should not be dominated by a theology primarily “against.” but be essentially a theology for” especially as “Good News” is at the core of that theology. That it retains a edgy polemic against falsehood is, of course, necessary. The character and witness of the New Testament demonstrate this; but it is not all consuming leading to the myopia and hair-splitting we have currently come to. 

 

 

 

[1] The New Testament: A Translation by David Bently Hart (Kindle Locations 10762-10765). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
[2] Ibid., (Kindle Locations 7065-7068). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
 
[3] Ibid., (Kindle Locations 4717-4718). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
 
[4] F.F. Bruce remarks “This is one of the great Christological passages of the NT, declaring as it does our Lord’s divine essence, pre-existence, and creative agency. Yet, high as the Christology is, it does not appear to be original to Paul himself; but rather part of what he “received” as primitive Christian teaching.”
[5] Becker, Ernest The Denial of Death,. Free Press 1975 p.
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Global Christianity & the Arts

kintsugi-creating-art-or-wabisabi-out-of-things-broken-theflyingtortoiseIntroduction to Global Art & the Church

Take away the Christian faith and one wonders what would be left artistically, architecturally – in almost any concrete area there would be an almost Pascal-sized abyss where once there were richness almost beyond measure. 

But what have we done lately? And what are we doing in the face of the steamrollars of Postmodernism who deconstruct more often than construct? This is not just “The falcon cannot hear the falconer” (Yeats), it’s that the falcon has been captured and is being dissected and the falconer has been brought up on charges for endangering other birds with his bird.

The “centre” holds fine – it is just being ignored, and as such we unravel and it’s unsurprising that we cannot find the horizon.

Into this mess comes “Christian Art” most often in the form of safe Christian music in the church, and safe Christian art in the Church (like having someone paint during a sermon  that’s artsy -flatulensy). So bad CCM “art” (evangelists with guitars and a drumkit) “happens.” And we would compare this with other eons of the Church if we had any sense of history and be ashamed – but we don’t have any sense of history so we are generally very sure that we are onto something very new and exciting!

Against this backdrop of course God is always at work in His Church. If, as Andre Malraux says “art is the last defense against death,” (Voices of Silence) then Christ goes beyond that – defeating death and opening up whole new possibilities for art.

____________________

“But wait, there’s more! In addition to two conferences and two artists, no quick overview of Global Christian art would complete without examination of an art form that is currently gaining attention for its potential theological  implications: the Asian art of Kintsugi!”

____________________

This report is small. Like a biopsy it can only take a small sample here and there to determine some areas of health. I have chosen to swiftly highlight two art conferences (one in Europe where the Church is in trouble; and one in Asia where it is thriving) that happen every few years.

Then I will turn specific attention to the current Asian influence on Christian art through the works of artists like Makoto Fujimura (in the U.S) and Nyoman Darsane (in Bali).

But wait, there’s more! In addition to two conferences and two artists, no quick overview of Global Christian art would complete without examination of an art form that is currently gaining attention for its potential theological  implications: the Asian art of Kintsugi – which repairs broken earthenware with actual gold resin, producing  not only wonderful pieces of new art, but ones which are emblematic of the work of God in people’s lives through their personal suffering, loss and brokenness.  

Representative Art Conferences

ScreenHunter_63 May. 17 10.19Christian Artists Seminar 2016 – Germany 

This group, which originated in 1980 with an ecumenical vision, took time to bring allies on board. Roman Catholics and others were suspicious of some of their sacred Protestant forms (as was historical the issue in the early ’80s especially concerning sacred music)

  The large-scale organization went through three shifts described below by Susan Snell in her detailed history of the movement:

The three main products of this movement have been the large-scale Seminars (1981 to 1993, promoting artistic quality and integrity, and from 1994 smaller scale and masterclass quality), the Association (founded in 1990, promoting national arts groups) and the Symposia (from 1991, promoting networks and specific socio-cultural studies).[1]

The six day seminar features keynote speakers, performers, workshops and a variety of ways for artists to coordinate their efforts and advance their work and callings.

A brief video explains it well; just click HERE.

 

Christian Arts Conference – Bali

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Stephen Scott performing at the 2014 Arts Conference in Bali.

The next conference has historically been held in Bali, but they are trying to have it take place this year in Cambodia instead. Friend, artist and poet Stephen Scott is a usual participant at the conference

Scott, a keynote speaker and performer at  the 2014 conference said,

At the conferences in Bali we saw ways in which the local church explored contextualizing and incarnating the gospel in a culturally rich and spiritually complex culture. Artists, from different places and communities, came together to celebrate culturally diverse expressions of their shared faith. We also reflected together on the truth that the goodness and beauty of God which can be grasped through abundant diversity of (its) expression.[2]

Examples of Christians Who have “Made it” as Artists.

Art conferences – especially Christian ones – seem fraught with all manner of difficulties – the largest one being funding.

I have my own ideas for how an “Arts House” can take place in the Bay Area – but that’s a ways off.

wenders_bono

Filmmaker Wim Wenders and Popstar Bono.

It is easy enough to point to people like Bono, Wim Wenders or T-Bone Burnett as Believers whose art has made their faith acceptable to large numbers of people who are often antithetical to the Faith. It is worth noting that none of these (or the others that follow down the list) have any history of Fundagelicalism” (my word) – but tend to be non-violent activists for world peace who will work with anyone in a non-judgmental way.

"The Fault In Our Stars" Nashville Red Carpet And Fan Event With Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff And John Green
  Novelist John Green  (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Allied)

Which is as it should be for all of us (he said judgmentally).

Turning from the general to the specific, and from forms of art which can easily slide into the category of “entertainment” – we will look at U.S.-based artist Mako Fujimura and Balinese artist Nyoman Darsane.

Makoto Fujimura

Well established in the Art world, Mako Fujimura’s art is recognizable almost immediately. It ranges from the deadly serious (post 9/11) to the whimsical (such as his series his current series in New York; Silence and Beauty.)

ScreenHunter_64 May. 17 12.35

Figure 2 A Post 9/11 painting – “Still Point.”

Fujimura , in the following video says that “art is transgressive” and that “we need to transgress in love.” He contrasts this with our Modern language that “celebrates waywardness.”

This is a fabulous FUJIMURA VIDEO

ScreenHunter_66 May. 17 12.41

Fujimura has a certain fearlessness in both subjects and mediums. He will use gold (in leaf and powdered form) as a medium – which would be unnerving enough on his large canvases, but then he will take on Post 9/11 depictions or do illuminated art for the 400th Anniversary edition of the King James Bible. So while a Modern artist working in New York he is hailing back through time and allowing traditions to inform him – from illuminated biblical texts to his artistic bedrock in Nihonga artistic technique, Fujimura is also a scholar of art with several books and who has earned four honorary doctorates.

ScreenHunter_68 May. 17 12.43

Illuinated art for the 400th Anniversary edition of the King James Version produced by Crossways Books.

bono_Burnett

Bono and T-Bone Burnett.

Recently named Director of Fuller’s Brehm Center in Pasadena, Fujimura has also served on the President’s National Council on the Arts from 2003-2009. Along with Fuller’s new project on the Psalms with U2 frontman Bono (Paul Hewson) new avenues are opening up for crossover between popular art and theology that has some depth.

Nyoman Darsene

The best introduction to Darsene is given by Baltimore writer/blogger Victoria Emily Jones, who says,

Balinese artist Nyoman Darsane was born in 1939 and raised as a Hindu.  At age seventeen, he became a Christian and as a result was ostracized by his family and village community.  But because he so persistently strove, through his art, to give Christianity a Balinese shape, they eventually decided to accept him back in.  They saw that he still loved and respected the culture; he was still “one of them,” even though his religious beliefs took a different turn.  Does he feel that, as a Balinese Christian, his identity is divided, that he cannot fully embrace both at once?  Not at all.  “Bali is my body; Christ is my life,” he says.  In other words, Jesus Christ is his all, but can he not pray to and worship and express his love for Jesus Christ in a Balinese fashion?  And can he not picture Jesus as a fellow Balinese, incarnate in the skin tone and dress and dance poses of his people?[3]

 

nyoman-darsane_sermon-at-the-seaside2

“Sermon at the Seaside,” 1988.

Dance is a major aspect of the Balinese culture as perhaps best known by the wayang purwa – or the dance of the shadow puppets.

ScreenHunter_72 May. 17 13.48

Figure 3 Nyoman Darsene creates a batique-like rendition of Jesus creating the Sun and Moon. This has all the framing of a Balinese shadow puppet.

Darsene recontextualizes the Gospels within Balinese culture rather than attempting to destroy it. In this way he is an example for those wishing to take the expression of longing and lostness which exist in any culture and inform them with new meaning. In a sense this is no different than what Paul attempts to do in Acts 17 at Mars Hill where he seizes both upon the Athenians art and their poets and then proceeds to tell them that the “unknown God” can actually be known.[4]

Future vision

I agree with Fujimura that “art is transgressive” although the word I choose to use is “subversive” – meaning that it presents a “different text” or series of “verses” – an alternate view of reality to the dominant culture in power (and always will).ScreenHunter_71 May. 17 13.19


In that regard “Gospel” is always good news that the dominant culture, and its metanarrative, is a lie. The Empire has no clothing and it is up to artists of all kinds (musicians, poets, painters, videographers, iconographers, etc…) to keep revealing nature, beauty, truth (in all its forms) and sometimes even the trailing backside of God’s glory after they have been deposited in the cleft if some rock.

This, to a very real degree – always keep the Artist at odds with the Powerful.  

Brokenness

Many artists create out of brokenness – in fact it was Otto Rank in his famous book Art and Artist who said “The difference between the artist and the neurotic is basically talent.” So Kintsugi – presents artists with both a world of beauty and a great metaphor for the human condition and its redemption. Here is a rather fun and humorous video done by a fellow who has really done some research:

KINTSUGI VIDEO!

kintsugi-creating-art-or-wabisabi-out-of-things-broken-theflyingtortoise

Not confined to just scriptural images and narratives, global Christian art has the potential to tell new stories as well as unmask the old ones. Surely this is what we have seen in the best authors: Flannery O’ Conner, Walker Percy, Tolkien, and then the countless classics working against that backdrop (like my own personal favorite – Steinbeck’s East of Eden.)

Christendom may have shut down a great deal of the dialog with the Postmodern culture via it’s coercive tactics and tuned others off with its “Gospel as Product” nonsense – but the Arts are still a healthy and wide open venue for theological exploration – if you are any good.

You have to be good – both as an artist and as a theologian.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Christian Art Netork, History, as found at http://www.christianartists.org/node/23, on May 17, 2016

[2] Scott, Stephen. Direct Instant Message Facebook dialog between Stephen Scott and Christopher MacDonald on May 17, 2016.

[3] Jones, Victoria Emily. The Jesus Question: Jesus the Dancer Part 7: The Art of Nyoman Darsene, as cited at https://thejesusquestion.org/2012/03/25/jesus-the-dancer-part-7-the-art-of-nyoman-darsane/, on May 17, 2016

[4] Acts 17:22-31