March 1, 2013 ·
Father's Ramble, The World Around Us
Today, I am publishing two posts. This is because unfortunately my blog went down for the first part of the week because it exceeded its bandwidth limit (a good thing really) and I was unable to post a second article. As I wrote when I started this back up, I want to publish at least two posts per week. Well, here is the second which is also the article in my parish’s monthly newsletter. I hope you find it informative and helpful. —Padre
The pundits all seem to think Christianity is dying. Surely the university professors think so; they proclaim it endlessly to their mesmerized students hanging on their every word. Social commentators are quick to say that Christianity has no traction among modern people. Even the topically “religious” programs on the History channel and other channels are largely cynical and sceptical, and they have little or no real value.
At one time it was common to sing Christmas carols at public schools as we neared the Christmas break—both the carols and the break were specifically given the “Christmas” moniker. “Merry Christmas” was pronouced by every shop keeper and clerk as we purchased gifts, which were far more modest in price and much fewer in number than is thought correct nowadays. As an aside, I find it interesting that the further we get from the Christian faith the more one must spend to celebrate Christmas. Very queer. (I’m re-claiming that word for its proper use.)
Church attendance has also wained in the last decades. In the 1960s and 70s, a faithful Christian was expected to be present every Sunday. Now it’s enough to go occasionally, perhaps once a month or so and still be thought to be perfectly faithful. [The Church doesn’t buy into that you might like to know, it still expects everyone’s presence every single Sunday, otherwise, you are not considered a faithful Christian, merely a social Christian.] I have heard many times how people’s social lives were focused in and through the Church. This was not a phenomenon only of ethnic Orthodox parishes—as though it was a defining characteristic of any ethnicity—but was found throughout all Christian communities regardless how heterogenous their composition was.
Morally one must admit that Christianity’s mores are no longer widely held. Our popular culture believes it’s okay to cohabit before marriage, to commit fornication, homosexuality is simply a personal choice—as is abortion. Euthanasia is often thought to be a merciful act. So-called same sex marriages are thought just… One could go on and on about the failure of the Christian notion of morality. Of course the scandals of pedophilia have not helped but for some very strange reason the spotlight has not been turned on the public education system which, according to recent documented research, has a far worse problem with pedophilia, child abuse, and more.
So yes, according to many markers, Christianity is dying. As a matter of fact I would have to say that it is definitely dying and that it needs to die, and quickly… at least the sort of Christianity we see these days. The Christianity that is no longer organic to real life has to die. We need to recover our agrarian roots but culturally and religiously. The sort of complex, artificial life of the merchant is moribund and contains no joy other than that found in things. It is a selfish, pornographic pleasure. That Christianity will die with all of its large mega-church excitement which has to constantly remake itself into ever more complex varieties.
But there is enormous hope I believe, because I really do believe. The hope is, as G. K. Chesterton so beautifully put it, we believe in a God who knows how to get out of the grave. The Church has died many times over the centuries through schisms, controversies, and persecutions. But she has always risen from the tomb that has been prepared for her. For Christ will not stay in the grave, for he liveth.
The question for us personally is which church do we belong to? Do we prefer the social church, bound by our own ilk and tastes, which is headed quickly to the grave, or do we prefer the Church which is ever young, ever alive and lives in the simplest and most connected manner of all—our authentic daily lives?
If we are part of the first sort of church, I suppose we should enjoy it while it lasts but know that it won’t be much longer to survive that way. Churches that are simply “chapels of ease” or convenience have a very short shelf life.
But if we want to embrace Christianity as something real and authentic, then we need to let go of the world’s values and begin to live with the Church’s life. I know that for some of you that will be very difficult indeed. It will challenge every aspect of your life from your daily routines to your politics. If you are in business it will make demands there too. But it is the only way you will find any real joy. And, of course, you already know that to be true.
Think of those who are merry and joyful. Who are they? Are they the merchants, the millionaires, the power moguls? Not at all. Their lives are to complex. We don’t desire that sort of life at all. When is the last time you thought of a merchant as heroic rather than as the tight-fisted miser like Ebenezer Scrooge? Those whom we usually think of as merry are those who don’t necessarily have a great deal, but whose lives are simple and authentic. Again turning to Charles Dickens, tiny Tim and his family are examples. The issue is not whether one has money, but whether one lives the Church’s life or the life of the dying church.
As we move towards Great and Holy Pascha through the journey of Lent, let us rejoice in the Resurrection, in our God who can never be laid to rest in the tomb though he is killed in virtually every generation. Let us learn to let this world’s notion of Christianity die in us—let us help to kill that vision—so that the true life of Christ may be lived. And finally, let us never lose hope when we see the dark things of this world, for Christ is risen.
Father's Ramble, Liturgy/Worship, Spirituality
So the first question that needs to be asked is, “Where does art come from?” That answer will help us get some insight as to its usefulness or appropriateness for Christian worship.
A very common assumption, taught in most art appreciation books, is that art is an expression of the individual artist’s emotions, thoughts or experiences. That is really only a partial truth, but it is taught that way so that art can be defined as being largely an editorial process, or a social commentary. To find the weight of that simply look at what usually passes as contemporary art. But it doesn’t answer the source of music—which is also art—nor of all genres of poetry. Another misconception is that art is not really possible until there is a higher form of civilization. While it is true that craftsmanship will be higher evolved and finer in more advanced civilizations (to a degree), it is not true that art depends upon advanced communities. I have in mind here not only the famous cave paintings in Lascaux, France painted by neolithic man, but also the incredible jewelry made by the celts and many other peoples even in the bronze age. Or again the Venus of Willendorf figurine carved by neolithic man. [I hope that you will “google” the various images that I will be pointing out so that you can see them. Unfortunately I am having difficulty trying to post any images in my blog, otherwise I would do that work for you.]
What is true is that man is a social being and that his entire world view will necessarily be effected and expressed socially. As Christians we’re not surprised because we believe in a God who is a Trinity of persons and not a great amorphous monad. We are created in the image of the Triune God, hence we are social creatures more deeply than our own DNA. This means there will always be a social dynamic in everything we do even if that dynamic is a rejection of the society from which we come.
If an advanced civilization is the source of art, and if it is always social, then why does man create? The real root of that is theological. Man creates because he is created in the image of a God who himself creates. But man’s art (in all forms) has a responsive character rather than an immediately original one. Only God created from nothing. Man creates in response to being created, using created matter. In a real sense, man’s inherently priestly character is found in the creation of art. The truest of all art is offered to God as a means of offering back the gift of creation. Man tries to create beautiful things because God is beautiful. (I never tire of saying that.) This theological and essential understanding of art is not taught to our art students any longer and more’s the pity because it also helps to give a direction, focus and purpose to man’s art.
Consider the caves of Lascaux again. Why did neolithic man use a hollowed bone and wet pigments to blow the paint onto the wall (making an early airbrush)? It is easy to induce that he was offering thanks for the herd of beasts that he was able to hunt and eat. We will not know for sure because we have only those painting left to us—though we have found burial sites of these peoples with the remains of flowers and other adornments laid beside the deceased. Nevertheless it is a very small aperture to peer through to get a glimpse of these people from so long ago.
Art can also have two voices. It can speak to God and it can speak to man, for it can be a plaintiff cry. That this is a valid expression we might recall many of the Psalms which are just that. Art can express angst and heartbreak, but good and beautiful art will do it always with God in mind. It can never lose the transcendent notion and remain good art. Even photography can express the transcendent and not merely be a snapshot of the scene in front of the camera.
The take away is that art is a spiritual impulse in the very heart of man. Good art presents life to the transcendent God and it manifests the activity of God in our creation to our communities. Art is essential a theological and spiritual discipline and it makes it all the more tragic that art students are not taught dogmatic theology or ascetically theology. Even worse, nowadays they are not even taught the craft of art as was done for centuries before. Art students are treated like a young musician who is handed a violin and asked to write a masterpiece without having learned his scales. The one exception that I know to this general rule of instruction is the Boston School of painters who still learn in Ateliers, notably under Stephen Gjertson, Richard Lack or Mr. Lack’s students. I was accepted to study in such an Atelier years ago but took a different direction instead.
Next time, we’ll try to look at some of the elements of good art.
February 25, 2013 ·
Father's Ramble, Liturgy/Worship, The World Around Us
I recall taking a course in American cultural anthropology at university. The professor–a genuine anthropologist–tried to spark a conversation about art. He asked what is it good for? Art has no utility. Whether it’s a painting, or poetry, or fine music (rather than that with which we are assaulted in all sides) there will not be found any practical use beyond filling in a blank wall or obstructing silence.
My class must have been filled with business majors, engineering students (perhaps the most arrogantly defiant prosaic group of all), or very shy art majors. No one made a defense of art. I’m not too surprised really since what passes for art–even “fine” art–is usually banal, derivative, and without merit. But more importantly, how can one defend it if one doesn’t know what art is?
When we come to “religious” art we must add a history of conscientiously directed iconoclasm which vandalized human souls with white washed walls. There is little wonder that so much religious art is inferior, sentimental, and unworthy inasmuch as it has been disconnected from a living culture of art for so long. Those who paint religious themes do so now against an overwhelmingly anti-religious art establishment. These artists must labor and develop their craft alone, which impoverishes their work.
I believe that we Orthodox Christians are extremely fortunate to have a set canon of iconography and established styles. For this reason we still have beautiful art. Mind you, we are no better than anyone else. This established canon has saved us from our own ghastly sentimentalized tripe on our church walls. We are also part of our times and generally I find our artistic senses no better refined than anyone else’s.
When it comes to art and religion, we are left with very important questions to resolve. What is art? What distinguishes good art from the rest? Why does man create it? And does it have a role in Christianity? For the next couple of posts, I propose to explore art from a painter’s understanding as well as from a theological point of view.
God bless all of you and I hope you’ll join me in this little journey.