When Charles Van Doren is walking down a hallway a girl off-screen asks, "Is Thomas Merton Episcopalian or Catholic?" And Van Doren responds, "Catholic." Later in the film, a monk is having lunch with Van Doren's family and he is referred to as Thomas.
However, the monk is wearing a brown habit (Benedictine, right?) and Merton wore a white habit, for the Trappist order. I assume a lack of research and that the man in the film is meant to be Merton.
Update: An anonymous commenter informed me that Benedictines were black, Franciscans wear brown.
In some ways, therefore, being a "Christian writer" presents internal challenges no different from those facing a gay novelist or a Native American poet, since each of us has to choose a primary identity to hold with the most spirited conviction. At one time or another in their writing lives, Gish Jen or Amy Tan likely needed to ask themselves what they owed their own people, how much they would say about their communities, maybe even how they might, as writers, serve those communities. Christian writers, like Chinese or Jewish writers or writers from the Pacific Northwest, need to ask themselves very similar questions.
And those questions are not easy to answer. Almost every social group one can imagine has its own fiery fundamentalists; fundamentalism exists, after all, wherever people stake claims to the absolute truth. In every sub-culture, among Texans and Mormons and the Lakota Sioux, some argue that reneging on one's commitment to what they see as their primary community is a refutation of identity. Are women writers primarily women or primarily writers? Is there a wholly unique African American aesthetic? These are complex questions, but questions almost every writer, at least individually, has to think through as he or she faces the empty page.
Taking the World upon Oneself. I enjoy the stories about people purposefully attacking art--throwing a chair through an offensive painting, putting up towels on nude figures in the city park, because where some see censorship or unappreciation--there is really a powerful engagement between the world and the work of art. I am interested in religious art that has taken on rust, dirt, water damage, human fluids, rips and tears because it shows a work of art that has opened itself up to the world and has taken into itself everything the world has thrown at it. The artwork is passive and, if it were living, obedient to death, even death on a cross.
Faith comes within Stuff. Many religious pieces I've seen attempt to create some illusion of transcendence, to capture the spiritual experience in physical expression. In broken pieces the physicality is emphasized. An image of a station of the cross with half the paint missing, while expressive, continually reminds us of the Stuff--the material--of ourselves. In a kind of Brechtian way, broken religious art is a theatre of alienation--pointing us to God, yet always reminding us that this is all mere mud and breath.
Brokeness as Completeness. Making art, one is continually wondering when a piece is complete. Do I stop here in the painting, do I keep going? Is this reaching fully what the object wants to speak? At this stroke or one more? Generally, it is when the artist stops that we traditionally say the work is complete. But what if an artwork is completed 20 or 30 years after the artist has taken his hands away from it? What if we decided that it was only 'complete' once the artist's concept was mangled up and distorted by the world around it? Only once Jesus has been beaten beyond recognition does he cry, "It is finished!"
Revelation as Wounding. This thought comes directly from Flannery O'Connor: that revelation from God is wounding. Paul was made blind. Zachariah, John the Baptist's father, was struck dumb. Jacob was touched in the hip and limped the rest of his days. When we have been touched with fire, we will never be the same. The scars of God are upon us.
Forgotten, but not by God. What makes it hard to find these pieces is that, once damaged, people think that these religious pieces are worthless and should be thrown away. They are deemed unsatisfactory for devotion. (Got to keep that Jesus clean.) But the Biblical metaphor (Cain, Hagar, Joseph, the Psalms, the Exile, the leper, the persecuted church) is that of God remembering the forgotten and discarded. When I go off looking for religious pieces, I leave the 99 "perfect" artworks and go looking for the One.
The Elevation of the Weak. Since I wrote the series on the gospel aesthetic (that gospel art should be ugly, unexcellent, confusing), I have been looking for this gospel art. And perhaps it is here...or at least it starts here for me. I hope someday, if I find some really wonderful (that is, horrendous) pieces, to put them on display in some kind of exhibit or show. To take these pieces, bound for destruction and forgetting, and to elevate them--to say "Look! Here! This is worthy of your rememberance!" is to raise up the lowly; it is in metaphor a way of turning our common aesthetic sense upside down and, thus, our religious imagination, too.
There are other ideas as well...the freak as prophet, the artist as ambulance driver, the Church as an army of zombies advancing, damaged yet undying.
At de Koffie Boon.
400,000 Chickens Die in Confinement Fire
Now that we’re alone
The Visiting Side
Degrees of Pee in the Care Center
Donations for the Hurricane
going to movies alone
Picture is of me reading at the an all-hall poetry event earlier this year, I believe.
Makes me think Rembrandt.
O'Connor writes in reference to religious folk: "Some of them live in a world God never created."
The world is not the one you want. The god is the not the person you expect. There are a million alternate universes but none of them exist. We are no further than primitive dancers, begging the sky for rain--for any kind of change. A poem I wrote:
These days are too stuffed with gods
smashed to the walls and shuffling
in the doorways clumping together
as dead leaves do slowly draining
out their color. Gods of the hearth
gods of the highway gods washing
in the rivers all gathering and signal
the crippling of the earth. All the
old beliefs step false but we still
believe them still pray to the gods
of our evolution for our bodies have
not yet eliminated the sun, wind
shiver and stamp of the grassland
loneliness. Like hidden frames on
a film reel I can see my natural
history spit out in fragments glowing
flicker and I hear the old prayers
pressing out my lips again: weep
for fire, screaming from the trees
the frenzy for knowledge to escape.
Part of art, I've learned, is the quest for the controllable material--the wet clay, the thinned out paint, the welding torch--whatever can allow us to manipulate our world to our dreaming. And here we have success--and even greater success when we accept the world as it comes to us, when we play with the world that is. (This is the art of gratitude.)
But sometimes it seems--in my life, in other human lives--that in finding our faith we are again on the quest for the controllable material. We are looking for the metaphor, the image, the over-arching theological theme that will shape God to our dreaming. Jesus, the Gospel, become inert ideas that we are allowed to manipulate as required--and then call it truth. Resurrection becomes a metaphor, redemption a plot point, Jesus an archetype, divine love as subject matter.
It is possible to be wrong and okay at the same time. We shape God and faith into our own image--a suitable helper for us, for our own personal projects. At the same time, we are deluding ourselves--we have shaped nothing at all but dirt and air. When I say "We shape God"--I certainly mean "We shape nothing at all." But it is good to be clear about what we're doing. All our dreaming cannot reach up to heaven--yet God seems to have reached down into our dreams. Everything burns in the end (this is not judgment, this is science) and there is no danger in playing around with theology and our imaginations.
We are like children playing cowboys and indians, rolling around in the dirt. The first parent thinks they ought to chide the children, to play something more sensible. The second parent stops him, smiles at how intense and serious the children are, she smiles: "Let them play--they aren't doing any harm."
Or as Clive Gilbert puts the end of time:
So real, so substantial, that we cannot imagine it. It is precisely beyond our wildest dreams. It is where dreams stop...the needle lifts, the record halts, no more music. And you are jolted awake by the absence of your imagination.
The resurrection--if you can take it--will be like that jolt. "Where am I?" But you will know exactly where you are, in your now-silent study, and an old friend [God] stands across the room from you, smiling as he puts your worn-out records away for good. And anyone might say then: "Oh, it's only you."
Can Evangelicals Make Great Art?
"My search is for evangelical/orthodox Protestant Christians who have made or are making excellent art. By excellent I mean art that is metaphorically textured, imaginatively rich, and thematically complex, expansive and allusive."
I am coming to the opinion that great evangelical art is something you can dream about but can't aim for. It's like the C.S. Lewis quote: "Aim for heaven and you get the Earth thrown in, aim for the Earth and you miss both." I might say, as an evangelical artist: Aim for good art, and you'll get your evangelical-sense thrown in, aim for evangelical art and you'll miss both.
I don't think O'Connor ever tried to be a Catholic writer.
Meaningful to me is the neck. You can notice two distinct finger marks, my own, which is the tradition sign of blessing in icons. It is my reaching out to touch his body with devotion--and meant a lot to me in the process. There are other finger prints in the work that don't come out very well in the photograph.
There are lots of problems with it, too--meaning I learned a whole lot, especially about the difference between mass form and line. The proportions were hard to imagine in reverse and the cross behind his back is off. As I mentioned before, I accidentially ripped my clay mold while making this relief. In the next couple of days I hope to cast the Jesus cracked in half...like communion bread broken...
But there have been no major upheavals to daily American life since perhaps the Great Depression or World War II. Consumerism increases, communication increases, media increases--these all began in the heart of modernism. But suddenly everyone says we're on the verge (or already deep in) this entirely new way of thinking that rejects modernity. But the only thing changing is now everyone says we're changing. A movement by sheer word-of-mouth.
The American postmodern mindset is, in my experience, the pseudo-intellectual extravagance of a filthy-rich middle class with lots of time to be self-critical and self-loathing. When all your needs and wants are met, you have lots of time to sit around and critique yourself and everyone like you. When you live in a war zone, you aren't thinking about the metaphysics of the sign and signifier. That's the luxury of affluence. And the moment the money disappears, so will postmodernism.
As for Christians, plenty of Christians have been able to have a Christian community, serve the poor, have a deep spiritual life and be open-minded without anything postmodern Christians have to offer--and they were modern, too--so tell me why this is important?
Consider this proof:
1) Christians need to be relevant.
2) Relevance means engaging with the culture.
3) Culture is what everyone talks about.
4) Everyone talks about postmodernism.
5) Our culture is postmodern.
6) Christians need to engage postmodernism.
This seems to follow pretty clearly (though I personally disagree with 1,2,3,5 and 6)..but I assume this is pretty standard for post-evangelicals. But my problem is this: It is problematic that you can put any random nonsense into number 4...and somehow Christians have an obligation to engage it.
4) Everyone talks about beanie babies.
6) Christians need to engage beanie babies.
4) Everyone talks about Michael Jackson.
6) Christians need to engage Michael Jackson.
This seems absurd. Yet this leads to sermons on the Matrix, Mountain Dew themed youth group events, books on the theology of television shows, etc.. But there seem to be more profound conclusions:
4) Everyone talks about elections.
6) Christians need to engage elections.
4) Everyone talks about a dip in the economy.
6) Christians need to engage a dip in the economy.
If you can put anything in place of number 4, then you claim that Christians must dialogue with every stupid piece of nonsense that humans can think up or worry over. Think of the coin given to Jesus--is it lawful to pay taxes to caesar?--Jesus flips the coin back. Whatever. I'm not here for this crap.
Art after 1940. Can't get enough Giacometti...always loved him. Working on a paper comparing Joseph Cornell and Nebraska artist Dave Stewart.
Sculpture. Relief of Jesus on the cross didn't turn out great...and I did accidentially rip my clay mold in half--but!--it made this incredible tear right down the chest of Jesus and through his head...so I am going to repair it just enough so I can cast it again--a Jesus on the cross, his body ripped apart. Mmmm.
Poetry. Putting together a poetry event for Sat, Feb. 18th at de Koffie Boon. There's an open mic this coming Sunday, too. Writing more poems for Adv. Poetry II. Ruthie finished her musical composition of my poem From the Art Gallery!
Painting. Screams of frustration escape from me. I'm painting over my walking girl and doing something completely different.
Lilly Chapel Internship. Putting together a Lent packet for student artists/performers.
Spectrum. This is my second year as the editor of the Spectrum, NW's literary magazine. We are currently reading through the submissions. Fun!
But when we judge the church, we must do so with caution, because we are judging the body of Christ. When we are bitter toward our upbringing, people we’ve known or the church we read about, we take it out on Jesus’ body. We stand before the body of Christ and we say it isn’t good enough, it’s too human, too weak, too full of failure. That doesn’t really matter, does it? It’s the body of Jesus.
There is only one Church—not the one we imagine, not even the one of the theologians—there is only one Church and it is the one made up of human flesh, our human flesh. It is ugly, it has no comeliness to draw us to it—and it is our only salvation. When we put on a fashionable aloofness, or a smarting bitterness we have taken from our culture, we refuse Jesus.
The good news of Jesus is that we can come to God as we are. Wouldn’t it be good news if we could let Jesus’ body come to us as it is, without having to contort itself to our better ideas?
It’s all so pedestrian, humorless and downright boring.
If you actually take a moment and look at his expression, it's like the anti-Jesus...pissed-off, clench jawed, ready to punch the lights out of any Roman soldier who dares take another hit at him. Maybe someone has a different reading of his face. This ain't your mother's suffering servant...we're sick and tired of a powerless Jesus that ignores the political. Give us a Jesus who makes us feel empowered, outspoken...and, most of all, extremely sexy.
Some anonymous individual writes into CBS and says he/she's upset that there is painting (by Tafa) up with Osama Bin Laden looking like Jesus or Jesus looking like Osama, upside down. That one person wrote a letter is somehow newsworthy. (Story here) (Rule: If one person sends in a letter, the media gets to call it 'controversial.')
The question that no one is asking is...why did the artist decide to have it upside down?
I overheard someone this week say something about reading in Blue Like Jazz something about Jesus looking like Osama Bin Laden.
Interesting to read are the comments on the World Magazine blog. But the thread is started by this question: "Is it offensive to Christians, or merely the artist's right to speak his mind?" How about it being not offensive to Christians--because it simply doesn't matter? Controversial Jesus images abound; it's like grass on a golf course these days...bor-ring..but upside down? That's original--it looks cool. (No joke here about turning the traditional image of Jesus on it's head.)
Read Tafa's bio on this page and look through his artwork. Then decide if he's out to degrade Christianity.
One Christian group is upset that it will "mock" and "denigrate" the crucifixion. Heaven forbid Jesus would actually be mocked and denigrated. Got to keep that Jesus clean!
The actual facts of the episode are so vague...it sounds like it will be as tame as any SNL skit. Once again, a story that really wants to be a story.
(I have a hunch that it may have been a Christian who pitched the idea to even observe Good Friday on a sit-com.)
See recent: finally, a gritty, true-to-life resurrection
- Crucfix with limbs missing, or torso missing while limbs remain
- Decapitated saint figurines
- Icons with dirt, chipped paint or foreign substances splattered on them
- Kitschy porcelain figurines with shattered heads or spider-web cracks
- Any painted works of Jesus with water or fire damage
- Rusty angels
- Sunday school materials that are torn or badly wrinkled
- Any religious art accidentially stained with blood
- Any religious art with human or animal evidence (such as bite marks or foot prints) on them
- Large life-sized statues of Mary in disrepair, covered in mold, sunken in pond water
- Any religious art that is weathered, outdoors in the wilderness, struck by lightning
I am interested in having them donated to me, purchasing them, or taking photographs of them. All damage must be accidental. Willing to travel and/or pay shipping depending on the piece and how damaged it is. Please contact me if you have any pieces or know of any places where I might find something like the above. I may also be interested in work that is completely shattered.
I have contacted local Catholic churches and they said they would get back to me. Saint George's does not have any. I checked local antique stores and found very little.
I currently have two pieces:
- A decapitated angel praying. from Ariel.
- A black-and-white photograph I purchased from an art student of a rusted crucfix in a local cemetery.