An Interview with Laura Dunn, Director of “The Seer”

Tomorrow I hope to publish a brief review of Laura Dunn’s new film “The Seer.” It’s a unique film and a hard one to pin down because while it is a portrait of Wendell Berry, Berry himself is never actually filmed for it. We only get archival photos of him and recordings of interviews with him. That said, what we do get is a unique film that does a marvelous job of helping viewers see what Berry sees when he looks at the world. And that is no small achievement. More tomorrow. For now, here’s the interview:

How did you first discover Berry’s writing?

I don’t remember, it was high school I think. I’d been interested in environmental issues for a long time, I’d been around agriculture for a long time (because of my mom’s job). It was mostly the non-fiction work that I started reading. When I was working on my feature “The Unforeseen,” which is very much a sibling to “The Seer”, I used a Wendell poem for that film and I met Wendell in that process and asked him to record his poem for the film. When I toured that film I was surprised at how few people knew who Wendell Berry was. When I finished I just imagined another film about his work. I thought to make a film that would in some way honor his work and his spirit and draw more attention to his work. Continue reading

Who says memorialism isn’t “sacramental”?

In the latest iteration of that interminable meme beloved by traditionalist conservatives everywhere, “Everything is terrible because of Protestantism” Peter Leithart has argued that Protestants cannot write because of our impoverished theology of the sacraments. His argument, particularly in part two, actually does become more complex than his “gleefully reductionistic” title would suggest, but the primary argument Leithart is making is that a memorialist view of the sacraments necessarily creates an impoverished imagination incapable of producing great art. Continue reading

A World Where Love Can Be at Home–Josh Ritter and Francis Schaeffer

“Christianity should never give any onlooker the right to conclude that Christianity believes in the negation of life.” — Francis Schaeffer

I’ve often wondered what might happen if Josh Ritter, one of my favorite modern songwriters, were ever to meet Francis Schaeffer, the famous American pastor and intellectual who in 1955 founded L’Abri in the Swiss Alpine village of Huemoz.

If you spend any length of time listening to Ritter’s music (and you really should spend some time with it) you’ll quickly realize that the man is simultaneously fascinated with religious themes and repelled by what he has seen of Christianity and of the Christian god.

In this sense he fits neatly into the category of “misotheist” as described by Bernard Schweizer. For Ritter the issue isn’t necessarily whether or not God exists. Rather, the issue is that if there is a God then he is a cosmic killjoy, a tedious bore of a being who would create us with the capacity to love and then fence it about with so many rules that the joy and wonder of it all is snatched away. Continue reading

Noah: A Theological-Aesthetic Rorschach Test

Last week saw the premiere of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, and with it a (predictable) storm of controversy from the evangelical community. Reviews have ranged from predictably critical to outright disdain to hostile readings, and from strongly (though not unreservedly) positive to more restrained affirmation of the film on aesthetic and spiritual grounds to especially measured theological and artistic engagement. In short, the responses spanned exactly the range one would expect from the evangelical community, which is itself deeply divided on the purpose, value, and meaning of the arts—decades of conversation on the topic notwithstanding. Noah[1] works as a sort of theological-artistic Rorschach test. We seem to find it in what we expect given its origins and our disposition.Noah_film

Rather than offer another review (which would add nothing to the conversation at this point), or decry once again the predictable evangelical response to the arts, or even critique reviews with which I disagreed, I thought it might be useful instead to ask where we stand today and point to a few places we might grow from this. Continue reading

Things I’ve Learned From C.S. Lewis

The world didn’t take much notice of C.S. Lewis on November 22, 1963, the day he died. It was too frenzied by the shocking assassination of John F. Kennedy, which occurred in Dallas about an hour after Lewis died in his Oxford home, The Kilns. Every moment of JFK’s assassination aftermath and funeral was watched by the world. His exit of this life had the attention of billions. Lewis departed quietly. Word of his death traveled slowly to many of his friends, and his funeral was poorly attended. Continue reading

Beauty and Power in Church Architecture

Last month, I began to build the case that Evangelicals possess an aesthetic that is reasoned, deliberative, and theologically informed. Contra the critics who charge that beauty is neglected in Evangelical circles, I find the comeliness in multipurpose worship centers equipped with retractable basketball stanchions. No, really.

To support this contention, I offered the parallel of Mormon architecture. Their institutional commitment to beauty—evidenced by their extravagant cathedral-like temples—has not dissuaded them from building cookie-cutter stake centers for the ordinary use of local congregations. They choose that fresh-from-Costco look deliberately because it serves the proper ends of week-in, week-out congregational life. Evangelicals, I maintain, have been equally reasoned in their design of church buildings and, therefore, should not be dismissed as aesthetic philistines.

But, the interlocutor protests, if Mormons have temples and Roman Catholics have cathedrals, what appropriately lavish oblation to beauty is found amidst the Evangelicals? When does extravagant, non-utilitarian artistic expression come to the fore and result in the construction of a truly marvelous facility?

Evangelical Church, Grand Valley, Ontario, Can...

Evangelical Church, Grand Valley, Ontario, Canada (1910) (Photo credit: Toronto Public Library Special Collections)

Never.

Well, not precisely never, but basically never. And this, too, is theologically informed.

The Institutional Church is Corruptible

Look around in your town. If it is anything like mine, most of the “beautiful” church buildings are inhabited by congregations who deny the resurrection, the virgin birth, or the deity of Christ. Yet the name-brands on those institutions—men like Martin Luther or John Wesley—were certainly orthodox, Spirit-filled men of God. Indeed, if you go back to when those local congregations were founded, I would bet many of them were constructed by God-fearing folk and the heresy and heart-hardening seeped in subsequent generations. Continue reading

Evangelical Tracts and Real Art: Gungor and Creation’s Goodness

You know music has power when it has you shivering while running in hundred-degree heat.

Güngör’s Ghosts Upon the Earth is like that, though. From the opening track, the album screams its willingness to be and do something terribly different from most Christian music of the last quarter century. For one thing, this is an album, not just a collection of songs. For another, the musical skill on display here combines with a willingness to forge a new sound, rather than retread the same old pop-rock milieu one more time.

Musical and lyrical unity in an album is a rarity today in any genre, but this album tells a story. Indeed, it tells the story.

But back to those shivers.

“Let There Be” is the first and only time to date that any piece of art in any medium has struck me with the same force and intensity as Tolkien’s glorious description of creation in The Silmarillion. One suspects, given some of the commonalities between the two, that Güngör is familiar with “Ainulindalë”, Tolkien’s magnificent chapter of sung creation and sung rebellion and sung divine triumph.

Ghosts Upon the Earth sweeps from this divine moment of joyous creation through an idyllic, Edenic revel in the delight of yet unbroken fellowship with God before plunging through the Fall and into the longing that pierces every heart in this age. But the hope of resurrection comes soon in the proclamation that “when death dies / all things live”, and this theme of hope then undergirds the painful journey that follows. Every joy that follows in this album is tinged with sorrow, but every moment of despair gives way eventually to hope. Again: this is a journey. It is beautiful and broken.

Gungor-ghostsGüngör’s first album, Beautiful Things, had musical interest in spades but sometimes at the cost of musical intelligibility. Much of the album – the titular track the main exception – required repeated listens before I could “get” it, and the recording never entered my regular listening. It was, like many classical pieces I have studied, interesting but not consistently engaging. But here, the band has achieved something remarkable: they have kept the same musical interest and complexity, but in such a way that every song on the album is engaging. You can sing this stuff with them, but you can also dig deep, deep down into the musical guts and find there remains yet more to plumb. That’s hard to pull off.

If you take a look at Güngör’s blog, you’ll note that Michael Güngör has criticized the typical evangelical approach to art, and rightly so. This album isn’t just a piece of music; it’s a salvo in a war against a reductionist understanding of art that typifies so much of evangelicalism. If it has become something of a cliche to attack the evangelical approach to art, there nonetheless remains a need for pieces to fill the gap, and there remains too the need to educate.

One reviewer on iTunes noted that the album confused him. It is not, he said, a typical worship album, and the lyrics were not all perfectly suitable for use in evangelism. You can not simply hand this to an unbeliever and expect them to come away understanding the gospel perfectly. The reviewer seemed particularly confused by the second track, “Brother Moon,” with its references to “Brother Moon” and “Sister Sun” and “Mother Earth.” I was bemused by his concern. Every reference to nature points right back to its Creator. The song points toward an innocent, nearly Edenic delight in unbroken fellowship with God and in all his hands have made. In the end, the album is as gospel-saturated as one could wish. But this was too much lyrical and intellectual complexity for someone looking for an evangelistic tract in the form of an album. Continue reading

Truth, Beauty, and Rob Bell

My friend Trevin Wax says wise things in response to Francis Chan’s book on hell:

What is needed is a response that takes into consideration the beauty of Truth. We’ve got the truth portion down when it comes to propositions. What is needed is a beautiful and compelling portrait of Truth – the Person. God is inherently beautiful, but many times, we don’t do well at drawing out the inherent beauty of Truth with a capital T….

The problem with the responses to Love Wins is that, while we are experts at critiquing Bell’s vision of God, we aren’t stepping up with a more compelling portrait of God’s magnificence. We are scribbling down our thoughts under Bell’s chalk drawing instead of taking up the paint brush and creating something that reflects the beauty of biblical truth.

We can write 50-page criticisms of The Shack. Meanwhile, men and women like William Young continue to craft great stories. We grasp the issues, but others grasp the medium.

The substance of Trevin’s recommendation is, of course, exactly right.

But we ought to be careful about where we put the target and even how we praise Bell’s approach.  He’s obviously an effective and popular communicator, but then so (in his own way) is Thomas Kinkade.   They resonate with different demographics, of course, but both of them offer an aesthetic aimed at the lowest common denominator.  That has its own value, in the way that U2’s music has its own value.  But the intentionally populist approach inevitably must absorb the scintillation of the masses into its form, and the masses are sometimes more moved by what’s easy than what is beautiful.

As Trevin notes, conservative evangelicals are playing catchup when it comes to aesthetics (though see Matt Milliner’s work or David Taylor’s for signs of hope).   But there is no sense in buying a stock at its peak, a danger that those who see the strengths of Bell’s approach will be in danger of.  Bell will continue to make his mark and inspire both devotion and censure, no doubt.  But rather than look to Bell for guidance, some of us should hunt for the neglected and forgotten resources that can guide us to a form and style that manages to move without sacrificing substance.  Perhaps idiosyncratically, I think Augustine might be a good place to start.

Of course, walking down this path is a bit of a trick if you have to sell books.  We live in an aesthetic environment that has been so watered down by mass exposure to words and images that the genuinely beautiful creation risks being dismissed as “boring.”  It is easy to view the Mona Lisa and wonder what the big deal is.  But to gaze, wait, and listen for the strains of the world beyond takes the discipline of a saint, and in the last analysis it is saints that we desperately need.

All that to say, I’m not ready to call Bell’s work beautiful, despite his overwhelming popularity and ability to connect with my generation.  Because we live in a world where beauty is hardly valued and her imitators adored, we need a more subtle way of discerning what will be around in 500 years from what we will have forgotten in 50.  That’s neither here nor there when it comes to Bell’s work directly, but it does leave space for a conversation about the aesthetic merits and limitations of Bell’s approach in such a way that requires us to look beyond Bell toward the beautiful itself in order to discern whether his work will endure.  Because though it may not always be popular, the beautiful will almost always last.

 

The Gospel According to Trees: Thoughts from Muir (there will probably be a lot of these)

When I read That Hideous Strength for the first time, I was impressed by Lewis’ deep appreciation of the ancient forests and trees. In the novel, the forests serve as a counterpoint to the ugly, progressive for the sake of progressive, and hyper-rationalized world of the science lab, and an indication of the spiritual nature of the living world. It also reminded me that there are two sides to environmental preservation. Though we often focus on the practical benefits (you know, like not starving or causing wide-spread devastation), Lewis knew that there was something inherently (and mysteriously) good about being amongst the older members of our earth. This passage by John Muir (written during part of his public campaign for national parks) reminded me of that same sentiment.

Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be detroyed – chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones.

Few that fell trees plant them; nor would planting avail much towards getting back anything like the noble primevil forests. During a man’s life only sapplings can be grown, in the place of the old trees – tens of centuries old – that have been destroyed.

It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these western woods – trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forest of the Sierra. Through all of the wonderful, eventful centuries since Christ’s time – and long before that – God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalances, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools. I guess Uncle Sam will need to do that.