Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Creativity as a Transcendent Act

Over the last year I had the opportunity to "teach" two groups of University Scholars in a Faculty Mentor Group for the first time along with my good friend J. Vincent Scarpace. This seminar program is not new, it has been a cornerstone of the Texas A&M University Honors Program developmental scholarship program for some time, and is often cited by students as one of the most rewarding experiences of their undergraduate careers.

The idea for this seminar had its genesis in a conversation that J. Vincent and I started on Facebook. The topic of this conversation was a quote from Madeline L'Engle's book Walking on Water: Reflections of Faith and Art in which she quotes Bishop KALLISTOS Ware from an undated issues of Sobornost magazine:
" abstract composition by Kandinsky or Van Gogh’s landscape of the cornfield with birds… is a real instance of divine transfiguration, in which we see matter rendered spiritual and entering into the 'glorious liberty of the children of God.' This remains true, even when the artist does not personally believe in God. Provided he is an artist of integrity, he is a genuine servant of the glory which he does not recognize, and unknown to himself there is “something divine” about his work. We may rest confident that at the last judgment the angels will produce his works of art as testimony on his behalf." - p. 30
L'Engle further develops this concept of being a servant to a greater truth:
If the work comes to the artist and says, "Here I am, serve me," then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist's talent is not what it is about. Jean Rhys said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, "Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolsoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don't matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake."

To feed the lake is to serve, to be a servant. Servant is another unpopular word, a word we have derided by denigrating servants and service. To serve should be a privilege, and it is to our shame that we tend to think of it as a burden, something to do if you're not fit for anything better or higher.

I have never served a work as it ought to be served; my little trickle adds hardly a drop of water to the lake, and yet it doesn't matter; there is no trickle too small. Over the years I have come to recognize that the work often know more than I do. And with each book I start, I have hopes that I may be helped to serve it a little more fully. The great artists, the rivers and tributaries, collaborate with the work, but for most of us, it is our privilege to be its servant. ---
When the artist is truly the servant of the work, the work is better than the artist; Shakespeare knew how to listen to his work, and so he often wrote better than he could write; Bach composed more deeply, more truly than he knew; Rembrandt's brush put more of the human spirit on canvas than Rembrandt could comprehend.
When the work takes over, then the artist is enabled to get out of the way, not to interfere. When the work takes over, then the artist listens. p. 23-24
J. Vincent, in our original conversation, had taken exception to the audacious notion that the talent of an artist, regardless of belief, was supposed to be co-opted for a purpose he might not support. For my part, I read Bp. KALLISTOS' commentary as incredibly generous in its orthodoxy. Since we all know that a contentious argument is perfect to draw interest, we figured this would be the place to start

We asked the students in our seminar to consider the following questions: can good art provide a transcendent experience? What agency (if any) does the artist have in expressing something transcendent?

We spent time in our early discussions laying the groundwork for exploring these concepts by asking the students to come up with a working definition of transcendence to inform future discussions. We engaged the idea of transcendence from the perspective of several different faith backgrounds, as well as a perspective of non-belief, and the students came up with the following:

Transcendence - The subjective experience of moving beyond one’s current state. - Fall 2010

Transcendence - the convergence between universal truth and human experiences. - Spring 2011
J. Vincent provided the students with instruction in the seven basic elements of art (line, shape, color, value, texture, perspective and composition), and then we turned them loose in his studio. Their mission: to produce an a work of art at the end of the semester that expressed their concept of Transcendence.

We had the good fortune to have a show for the students' artwork this past May at the Village Cafe in Downtown Bryan. It was truly rewarding to see the students take pride in their work and share it with their peers.

They had this to say about their experience:
This course was designed to allow us, through discussion and actual painting, to discover our interpretation of Transcendence and really understand the different motivations behind art. We also studied different types of art and postulated about some of the different motivations and goals of the artist. Overall, this was a very enriching experience of how the other side lives. - Fall 2010

As social animals, humans seek to share experiences. However, humans are to some extent handicapped by languages like English or Mandarin that lack universality. The elements of art, as they are not situated in any one culture, may instead serve as the grammar of a universal language. This semester, we have sought to understand how artists have employed this universal truth system to express diverse human experiences (transcending communicative limitations) and ultimately, how we too may employ this universal language to share our own experiences. - Spring 2011
One student went even further and wrote his own essay summarizing the experience. He has continued to process the ideas from our seminar and turned his essay into a blog post about the experience here.

This is my summary of the experience:

One of the most satisfying aspects of participating in a University Scholars Faculty Mentor Group is the concrete realization of what it means to be in a “community of learners.” The topics and discussions we visited in our meetings were subjects that I revisited throughout the last year: at work, with my children, and in my own scholarly and creative production.

I’ve realized that education is providing access to new technologies, machines—yes—but also processes, theories, literatures, all of which have idiosyncratic languages. At our best, educators demonstrate that these technologies exist, introduce their use, and perhaps even engage discussion about whether they should be used.

When we are really successful, our students are aware that technologies might exist to solve questions they have not yet asked, how to find those technologies, and begin critically evaluating the ethics of those technologies. None of this would be possible without pushing the students to explore an uncomfortable subject or situation in the relatively safe setting of a classroom to give confidence so that they can do more of that exploration on their own.

Monday, August 08, 2011

More on The Response

To temper my earlier criticism of The Response, I thought I'd share some observations having participated vicariously. At the urging of my friend Sue, I watched the live webstream from The Response from about 10:30 AM - 4:30 PM (actively listening/watching for the first two hours or so of that). The first thing I would say is that Perry played little part in the actual event, though his piece (see below) was certainly enough to justify speculation that he might use this as a springboard to a presidential bid, especially given the event organizers' estimate that 120,000+ participated in person or virtually.

I think that most of the folks who organized and/or participated in The Response were sincere and motivated by their basic theology, which is to say that while I might disagree with some details of their teaching, I cannot help but admire their devotion. That said, I maintain the thesis of my earlier post--to whit, that The Response had a cultural agenda that was necessarily exclusionary. Not that there is anything wrong with that, unless you claim otherwise. Using the language of the event, a person would need to "agree" with the statement of faith on The Response website to participate, which statement excludes the majority of the world's Christians. They certainly didn't put anyone on stage that claimed a different creed. To turn the tables, I wonder if The Response organizers would feel comfortable participating in a Roman Catholic event that listed the Nicene Creed as the statement of faith...but didn't check baptismal certificates at the door?

I live-blogged a bit of the part I watched here. Without any further explanatory notes, I've reproduced that record below.

posted 11:27a, 08/06/11

Interesting that this is the only thread on The Response. I guess no one here went? A friend of mine is closely involved, and based on her encouragement I've tuned into the live webstream.

While I agree with pg about Perry's motivations (my take on it here), the folks on stage seem pretty sincere...and Perry hasn't yet made an appearance. The messages so far have been 1) tribulation is sometimes a mercy that helps us focus on God, 2) pursuing wealth and the "American Dream" are a distraction from God, and 3) rooting out and repenting for sins like sexual immorality.

While I find the rock (praise?) interludes distracting, it is interesting that "Lord have mercy!" is the theme...not so far off from how EOC teaches us to pray. The messages are on target, but I feel embarrassed? disappointed? saddened? that what the whole stadium is getting so worked up about has a deep, robust, and comprehensive treatment in the historic church. The emotion-driven applause and catcalls make this seem more like a performance than instruction or worship.
posted 11:33a, 08/06/11

Spoke too soon...Perry is talking now.

His message, "God's agenda is not a political agenda, it is a salvation agenda." "God is wise enough not to be affiliated with any political party...or any man-made institutions." Preaching now from Joel 2:12-17.
posted 11:37a, 08/06/11

Isaiah 40:28-31

Paul 3-14:21

And "preaching" isn't exactly right. He's reading Scripture with pauses for dramatic effect and applause.

posted 11:48a, 08/06/11

Perry's closing prayer:

Lord you are the source of every good thing. You are our only hope. We stand before you today in awe of you power; In gratitude for your blessings; In humilty for our sins.

Father, our heart breaks for America. We see discord at home, we see fear in the marketplace, we see anger in the halls of government. As a nation we have forgotten who made us, who protects us, who blesses us. And for that we cry out for your forgiveness. We pray for our nation's leaders Lord, for parents, for pastors, for the generals, for governors that you would inspire them in these difficult times. Father, we pray for our president that you would impart your wisdom upon him and guard his family. We pray for our military and the families that love them. Oh father, especially, for those special operators who lost their life yesterday in defending our freedoms.

You call us to repent Lord and this day is our response.

We give it all to you for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen, amen, amen.

posted 11:55a, 08/06/11

Dr. Tony Evans...likens the role of American Christians to that of football officials.

The moment that that "third team" of officials, which belongs to another kingdom, forsakes the instruction of the "Commissioner" and the "rule book" and aligns itself with either of the battling teams or bends to the hissing of the crowd, they have lost their legitimacy and the favor of the "League Office." How can we be "One nation under God" when we cannot be "One church under God"? "The reason why America is in a mess is because the Church is in a mess. If we fix the Church then God can use the Church to fix America."