Monthly Archives: April 2015

The Salt of the Earth

salgado

The headlines today–or any day–reinforce the tragedy of life on this planet. Hundreds Feared Dead After Boat Filled With Migrants Capsizes. Video Purports to Show ISIS Killing Ethiopian Christians. There are ample reminders of the world’s calamity, horror and heartache in our daily social media feeds.

The ubiquitous reporting of tragedy can sometimes desensitize us to it. Art, with its audacious capacity to bring meaning out of the meaningless and (sometimes) beauty out of the ugliness, can re-sensitize us. “The role of an artist is to not look away”-Akira Kurosawa one said. And though what their cameras or brushstrokes capture may not make us comfortable, the artist’s gaze is crucial for the building of humanity’s awareness and empathy.

The Salt of the Earth, a new documentary about photographer Sebastião Salgado, powerfully shows this. Directed by Wim Wenders and Salgado’s son, Juliano, the film chronicles the journeys of Salgado to capture the struggle of humans in the midst of war, disease, poverty, famine, industry, migration and more. Over his four decade career, Salgado’s images brought him much acclaim but they also brought awareness to the plights of many. His gaze definitely manifests a “not looking away” boldness but also a humane compassion. There are lessons here in how to see, and why seeing well matters.

As I finished the film I kept thinking of the Matthew 9:36 verse where it says of Jesus that, “Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them.” Had Jesus been given a camera in the 1st century, I imagine his portraits would look not dissimilar from Salgado’s. Salt of the Earth sees a lot of horrific things but it always sees them through a lens of compassion and, ultimately, hope.

As chroniclers of reality and human suffering, artists are often prone to falling into despair and giving up on people. Salgado certainly is tempted by this, especially after his time in Rwanda in the mid-90s, photographing unspeakable evil in the midst of the genocide. Following this, his career turned toward nature and animal photography, capturing the beauty of the earth and its Edenic majesty, apart from the hellish wars and struggles of mankind. Yet ultimately the beauty of the natural earth and that of mankind are inextricable; humans are the caretakers of the Garden, after all, the stewards of creation for good or ill.

Recognizing this, Salgado decides do his part as a human steward and preserver of God’s creation (“Salt of the Earth” is a metaphor that implies a preserving function). He re-plants a rainforest in his Brazilian hometown, a forest that had thrived in his childhood but a half century later had been decimated by famine and industry. Salt of the Earth–so much a film about decay, inertia and fallenness–ends on a beautifully hopeful note as the “garden” of Salgado’s upbringing is replenished and brought to new life. Resurrection.

Among its many merits, Salt of the Earth is a beautiful reminder that having eyes to see the evil and deprivation of our world should not lead us to apathy and despair, nor complaining and rage. Our response should rather be to recover our original Edenic calling: to bring order out of the chaos, to combat evil through love, to plant seeds of new life in every sphere, to be the salt we were created to be, agents of preservation in a world stricken by decay.

Advertisements

Too Reformed for Revival?

worship

In the Christianity of my Midwestern Baptist upbringing, the Holy Spirit was a part of the Trinity I acknowledged but hardly understood. I recall hearing murmurs that one of my classmates in third grade was a “charismatic,” which meant they were just as misled as the one Catholic family on our block. When we visited churches where people raised hands in worship, we assumed they were liberal or in some other way cooky. In junior high I remember hearing my sister describe the trauma of attending a charismatic church service with a friend. There were healings and speaking in tongues. The horror! In our minds this was essentially a cult.

Though I gradually loosened up a bit in my fear of “charismatic” expressions of Christianity (college and post-college travel abroad aided in this), until very recently I was still quite skeptical of the Pentecostal strain in evangelicalism. As a reserved, academic-bent believer with a fondness for liturgy and theology, “Spirit-led” meant unwieldy emotionalism and dangerous anti-intellectualism. Talk of “hearing from God,” “receiving a word” or sensing the Spirit “doing a new thing” seemed to me lazy apathy about Scripture at best and stepping stones to heresy at worst. Though I wasn’t as militant about it as some people, I was functionally a cessationist.

Things have changed since I started attending my current church in 2012. Here I encountered something I had no paradigm for: A Word-centric, Reformed-minded church that is also “Spirit-led.” A church where John Calvin is quoted alongside John Wimber; a church where the gospel is preached via expositional preaching for 45 minutes but space is made in worship for spontaneous bursts of prayer and prophecy, within limits. Part of the church’s Spirit-led DNA comes from its global orientation and emphasis on church planting and partnership in Africa, Asia and Europe… which I love. But I’d be lying if I said the Spirit stuff has been easy to stomach. There are times when my old skepticism flares up, fearing the abuses of emotionalism and the prophetic. But more and more I am growing to appreciate that within the bounds of Scripture and community (as “bumpers” in a bowling lane, so to speak), leaving room for the Spirit to move is a good thing.

In his 1974 essay “The Lord’s Work in the Lord’s Way,” Francis Schaeffer wrote this:

Often men have acted as though one has to choose between reformation and revival. Some call for reformation, others for revival, and they tend to look at each other with suspicion. But reformation and revival do not stand in contrast to one another; in fact, both words are related to the concept of restoration. Reformation speaks of a restoration to pure doctrine, revival of a restoration in the Christian’s life. Reformation speaks of a return to the teachings of Scripture, revival of a life brought into proper relationship to the Holy Spirit. The great moments in church history have come when these two restorations have occurred simultaneously. There cannot be true revival unless there has been reformation, and reformation is incomplete without revival. May we be those who know the reality of both reformation and revival, so that this poor dark world in which we live may have an exhibition of a portion of the church returned to both pure doctrine and a Spirit-filled life.

Too often churches focus on one or the other: reform or revival, Word or Spirit. But we need both. This is a truth I am seeing more and more clearly as I experience and observe church culture in its various late modern manifestations. I believe Schaeffer was right. Churches that will flourish in the 21st century will be those centered upon the “dual restoration” of reformation and revival. In the midst of threats from Scientism, new atheism and disintegrating theological consensus, a strong bent toward doctrinal foundations and theological sturdiness will be essential going forward. Yet robust theology stripped of supernatural power will make no difference in the vitality of the church in the face of growing persecution and the inertia of secularism. In the face of these threats we must seek the Spirit, commit to pray and rely on the power of God.

The life we were designed for as humans, and also as the church (the body of Christ), requires both the head and the heart, knowledge and passion, structure and spontaneity, rationality and mystery, contemplated principles and enacted power.

The more I think about the complimentary beauty of Word/Spirit balance, the more I see how fundamental it is not just to the DNA of the church but to day-to-day human flourishing. One cannot live as a cerebral thinker without the hard-to-harness emotions and energy of the body; one cannot thrive by focusing on either predictable rhythms or freewheeling improvisation. We need to allow for a little bit of both.

Perhaps being married for the last two years has shown this to me in a deeper way. My wife is more emotionally intuitive, flexible and spontaneous than me. I am more logical, steady and systematic than her. We need each other. Together we are stronger, richer, more vibrant in our witness.

You start to see corollaries to the Word/Spirit dynamic everywhere when you begin to look. Left-brained and right-brained. Prose and poetry. Classical music and jazz. A trellis and a vine. Nature and nurture.

There’s a universality and existential trueness to Word/Spirit complementarity that lends it credibility, in addition to its ample biblical support.

As globalization blurs lines between western and non-western Christianity and mutual skepticism between “charismatic” and “reformed” traditions ease, the church today finds itself in a moment where a biblical balance between Word and Spirit can be restored. I am convinced that such a balanced, non-pendulum approach is the way forward for sluggish, fragmenting and ineffectual evangelicalism in post-Christian culture.

In my own faith I’m learning to make more room for the Holy Spirit, just as some in my church family are learning to make more room for the Word. Together we are stronger, richer, more vibrant in our witness. And that is my prayer for the larger body of Christ.

Suffering, Sufjan and “Saturday Art”

IMG_0596

In the Christianity of my childhood, Easter Sunday was Cadbury eggs, brunch and celebratory church services full of rollicking hymns like “Up from the grave He arose.” In my adolescence and twenty-something years I became fond of celebrating Good Friday, a part of Easter weekend largely bypassed in my childhood. With its mournful tone and quieter focus on the cross, Good Friday was almost more compelling to my melancholy self than the joy of Easter.

Yet for Christians, Friday and Sunday are equally crucial. The horror of death and the beauty of resurrection are both essential. The tension of Saturday, between death and life, loss and victory, suffering and healing, is where we live. We are mortal, decaying, sin-sick creatures. Yet our redemption is secure in the resurrected Christ; we will be made new.

Art is a gift that God gives us to help us cope with Saturday life. In Real Presences, Jewish literary critic George Steiner wrote about this “Saturday” approach to art: “Ours is the long day’s journey of the Saturday. Between suffering, aloneness, unutterable waste on the one hand and the dream of liberation, of rebirth on the other.”

In the face of the unspeakable horrors of Friday, “even the greatest art and poetry are almost helpless,” wrote Steiner. But likewise “In the Utopia of the Sunday, the aesthetic will, presumably, no longer have logic or necessity.”

The arts are fundamentally “Sabbatarian,” argues Steiner. “They have risen out of an immensity of waiting which is that of man. Without them, how could we be patient?”

Indeed, the arts are fundamentally about navigating the inherent restlessness of human existence–a grasping after shalom, equilibrium and peace in the midst of a chaotic, tortured and lamentable world.

For Christians who make art, the temptation is often to move too quickly to Sunday. Thomas Kinkade is the easiest example; but we see it as well in the predominantly cheerful genre of worship music and the notoriously saccharine positivity of evangelical-made movies (e.g. Fireproof, God’s Not Dead). Christian films do an injustice to the gospel when they present a kumbaya world where all believers are happy and life is a nicely wrapped package with a heavenly bow on top. Certainly hope is central and the resurrection is a paradigm-shifting lynchpin for those who follow Christ. But so is the cross. The humility, the pain, the shame and the struggle of Christ on the cross is not to be shunned or avoided by Christians; it’s to be embraced and imitated. And what a beautiful thing that is.

A Jesus who suffered is a Jesus we can know, because if we know anything in this world, it’s suffering.

I like how poet Christian Wiman describes his faith in My Bright Abyss:

“I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? … He felt human destitution to its absolute degree; the point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.”

Jesus was not a powermonger who established a religion with a sword; he established it by being shamed on a cross. He was “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Is. 53:3).

“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

The best Christian art is right there with Jesus.

“Lord, why? …Where were you? Who are we to you? Answer me.”  (Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life)

“What did I do to deserve this? … How? God of Elijah. How?”  (Sufjan Stevens, “Drawn to the Blood”)

Sufjan Steven’s Carrie & Lowell is an album that embodies a Saturday aesthetic.

On one hand the album seems to be decidedly “Friday” oriented, fixated as it is on the death of Sufjan’s mother, Carrie, who died of cancer in 2012. Yet the album isn’t named only after Carrie. It is also about Lowell, Sufjan’s stepfather who become one of his most valued friends (these days Lowell runs Sufjan’s record label Asthmatic Kitty).

We see the tension of Saturday both in the album’s title and in its individual songs, which speak of Friday–death, blood, drugs, vampires, driving off a cliff–but give hints of Sunday in its pastoral reminiscences of childhood in Oregon and associated bursts of love, wonder and hope. In “Carrie and Lowell” Sufjan sings of a “season of hope (after the flood).” In “The Only Thing,” Sufjan suggests that God and faith (“signs and wonders… blind faith, God’s grace”) keep him going in the midst of despair. In “Fourth of July” a deathbed conversation between Sufjan and his mother focuses on the heavens: birds of various sorts, fireworks, stars, the moon.

There is a sense in the record that Sufjan, like Christian Wiman, resonates with the idea that in Christ, “God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.” In his song “John My Beloved” Sufjan identifies with the bittersweet emotions John (“the beloved disciple”) must have felt as his intimate friendship with Jesus mixed with the reality of being separated by death. Yet even as he seeks comfort in Christ (“Jesus I need you, be near, come shield me”) he also makes no claim that faith is the solution to all pain. The song “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” is all about Friday, skeptical as it is that the “shadow of the cross” brings meaning to the previous song’s “shadow of me” musings.

And yet the album’s closing song ends with an eschatological nod to Sunday. “My Blue Bucket of Gold” uses the imagery of a fabled Oregon gold mine to channel the pain and longings of the album toward a search for something higher, something heavenly: “Search for things to extol… Lord, touch me with lightning.”

Oh that more of our art would hold Friday and Sunday in such elegant tension, helping us through the fog of this liminal, Saturday space; the heartache and hope of the “now and not yet.”