The devil and a bit of truth

The devil and his friend were walking down the road when they noticed a passer by pick something up off the ground.  The friend wondered aloud as to what the person had found.  Satan replied that they had picked up a piece of Truth.  His friend was chagrin, “You can’t just let people go around finding Truth, can you?  I mean, what kind of world would this be….?” 

The devil laughed out loud and calmly reassured his friend, “Oh don’t worry, they’ll just turn it into a belief…I’ve seen this a million times before!”  Somehow Satan’s friend didn’t look convinced to which the devil addressed his final comment, “Just ask Jesus.  He’s came into the world and embodied Truth and look what happened to him…his disciples just ended up founding Christianity!”

Relieved, the friend mused, “Yeah, I guess you’re right…nothing to be worried about I suppose.”

The Impossible Now–Part Three

…we build Emergency Rooms…

Of course this doesn’t stop the im/possible from occurring again. Wildcard futures, the unexpected and unpredicted, keep on happening; but just not in the same way. If we can count on them, they are no longer miraculous; they would have crystallized into just another part of the natural world. The im/possible, in order to remain impossible, will always recede back into the swirling primordial waters of the edge of chaos where it awaits upsetting the apple cart another time, in a different way than before. Going back to the Exodus narrative we see this played out in several places. The absurd provision of manna, a sort of cake-like heavenly food (whose name literally means “what is it” and emphasizes the confusion such im/possible events leave us with) is a seminal occurrence in Hebrew literature. However, the manna’s presence ends as the Israelites cross over into Canaan. Most interpret this to mean that God’s miraculous provision was no longer needed in the light of the bounty of Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey, and so God withdrew the needless gift. But in another reading, the manna actually disappears just when they need it and can count on it the most. It’s been forty years that they’ve relied on manna from God-knows-where. In some ways the generation that grew up with manna pudding and manna tar-tar has no concept of how to hunt or gather, let alone cook, anything else. Their conquest of the land will take another entire generation—who doesn’t need a regular stock of food and supplies for such an undertaking, especially one such as this that they have learned to depend on? In a sense, the rug is being pulled out from under the Hebrews’ feet. The im/possible is refusing, as it always does, to be pinned down and become a part of someone’s strategic planning. It will always retreat from our view, from our expectation, from our massaging of what is possible, and back into the realm of the unexpected and truly unimaginable.

The Impossible Now–Part Two

…There’s another kind of future, one we’re even less equipped to face….

Truthfully, the kind of event I’m envisioning can’t be prepared for. We cannot even begin to imagine or plan ahead for this kind of future—the wildcard future. It’s always out of nowhere. Nobody sees it coming. As post-structuralist philosopher Jaques Derrida said, it is the im/possible—the impossible that becomes possible by colliding with our immediate reality. The im/possible is truly unimaginable. And of course, the unimaginable happens all the time. We hear it in the sobs of the newly widowed, “I never thought anything like this could happen.” We observe it on the shocked faces of political pundits as outsider-unaccounted-for’s win primaries and then even presidential races. We feel it from time… to time…to time. In fact we encounter the im/possible so often in life that it’s a surprise that we’re surprised. Of course the examples I’ve used are basic, even bottom of the barrel; they’re somehow incredible familiar events. Truthfully, the reason why they’re familiar to us at all, why we relate to sentiment of the grieving widow or the shocked commentator is because we expect the unexpected. Culturally, we’ve built them in to our routine. Think about emergency rooms. What a strange place. It’s an institution built entirely on the premise that we will be taken off guard. Emergency rooms are a societal contingency plan. They’re an admission of our own lack of control. But even this apprehendible-unanticipatible is not the im/possible I speak of – not really. What I mean is an event outside of the built-in contingency plans; circumstances that overturn the apple cart altogether.

It’s difficult to get concrete with that term, “the im/possible.” Partially this is true because as soon as the unexplained and the unexpected enter our universe, we begin to explain and expect it. The impossible becomes…possible. That’s why I notate it with a little slash separating the word, because it is simultaneously possible and impossible.  Take a Biblical example, something outlandish – the crossing of the Red Sea for instance. In the book of Exodus, as their Egyptian taskmasters and previous owners are in hot pursuit, the children of Israel get stuck between a rock and a hard place. The armies of Egypt are behind them, and a body of seemingly un-crossable water is ahead. What happens next is remarkable. The im/possible occurs. There’s a divine intervention. The wave’s part and dry land appears. The ex-slaves pass through the clearing just in time and the story ends with pursuant horse and rider being swept away by the collapsing wall of water. Miraculous. My point isn’t the “fact” of the event; whether it happened that way or not. Actually my point is the absurdity of it all. These things don’t happen every day. It couldn’t have been expected or anticipated. And while the cries of the desperate would have certainly bordered on polite requests for rescue, no one could have imagined that the Sea itself would have been parted. Within the context of story itself it is a brilliant example of the impossible intersecting reality. What’s more is that the event is not only unexpected but is also unexplainable, at least within the text. The author of Exodus doesn’t attempt to give detailed scientific or historical precedent for the event but allows it to remain teetering on the edge of chaotic disturbance.

Several years ago the History Channel aired a series called “Mysteries of The Bible.” It featured various scholars, historians, archeologists and other experts in the field, each of whom took their best shot at rationalizing a handful of biblical stories such as the one above. I’ll never forget the slough of explanations for the crossing of the Red Sea. There were several of them. One focused on wind power and hurricane strength to clear water, rather instantaneously, from sea floors. Another proposed a case of mistaken identities; the body of water mentioned in the book of Exodus couldn’t have rationally been such a huge expanse as the Red Sea we know of, so it must have been a smaller one, such as the Sea of Reeds. The Sea of Reeds, being rather shallow, could have conceivably dried, in due season, in one place or another, allowing for a mass exodus such as the one described in the Bible. On and on the explaining went, until any logical person watching the show would have been sufficiently convinced that the real crossing of the Red Sea was slightly (or vastly) different than presented in the Biblical rendition, but was therefore entirely possible, conceivable, and explainable. In other words, the im/possible just became possible. As soon as the unimaginable future enters into our reality we immediately reconstruct our thinking to account for it. We rationalize how we could have been prepared (had we only thought far enough ahead or enough outside the box). As this happens an event ceases to be impossible and starts to acclimate into our version of reality. Experts figure out the science behind the magic. Historians matriculate the timeline of crucial events. Theologians and philosophers craft carefully articulated statements of description and prescription. Going back to a previous example, we build Emergency Rooms.

The Impossible Now–Part One

Not all that long ago I wrote an article about approaching life and faith with a sense of artistry. Art isn’t limited to painters and poets—that would be boring! Using a wide lens view, art is really just a practice where ordinary people apply authenticity, imagination and experiment to every corner of our lives. We need each of these elements as we encounter the present moment. Authenticity enables us to say it like it is—just as we feel right now. It’s the honest admission that we don’t have all the answers; we’re all cracked pots. It’s the acknowledgement of our own mundane messes. Imagination is the ability to rethink those obstacles, those immediate realities. Imagination looks at a dilapidated shanty and pronounces it to be a cottage or a bungalow. Imagination reshapes the landscape of the “here and now” with the “could be” and “what if.” Imagination is the engine that drives all great transformations. Finally, experiment is the leap of faith to attempt, to risk, to try—regardless of possible failure. An air of adventure clouds around an experimental person. Experiment lifts our honesty and our fantasy and places them on the solid ground of reality, if only for a moment. These qualities transform plumbers and politicians, mothers and millet grinders, car salesmen and cow herders into true artists.

Futures studies – an interdisciplinary field covering science, business, sociology, and psychology – tells us that there are actually a variety of types of futures. For the most part we’re used to dealing with what we might call “the relative future.” If we change our diet and exercise routine today, something will be different tomorrow as a result. The relative future is the future that is literally relative to what we are doing right now in the present. It’s the dent that we make on tomorrow, and the children of tomorrow, by the choices we make in this moment. In general we don’t consider the relative future enough. We still feel too much like little boats getting tossed around by the hurricane of fate, Sovereignty, or inevitability. Generally speaking, while our culture talks a lot about “freedom of choice” and the power of that freedom, most people doubt that they’re really going to make an impact. Consider the staggeringly small percentage of the population that actually determines a political election. The number one reason people give for not voting is because they don’t believe their vote will make a difference. It’s the same reason why people don’t make adequate retirement plans or start saving income when they’re young or even planning for next week’s agenda. Culturally we have an underdeveloped view of the relative future. It seems too unrealistic; too unrealized; too far away. Organizations and individuals must begin to take the future seriously in the immediate moment and use the qualities of the artist as the road map forward. Authenticity, imagination, and experiment are how we prepare for the future in the present. I believe these tools will be incredibly important tools for navigating the complexity of the 21st century. But I also believe they are inadequate.  There’s another kind of future, one we’re even less equipped to face.

The tensions of creativity

Here’s another reason why the church is like art and should be approached by people willing to think of themselves like artists:

Form vs. Flow

There is a struggle at the heart of every person to both live within a form and break out of it–to burst over the banks and crash through the walls into something new.  This is vividly portrayed in art.  An artist will spend years developing the ability to speak through a certain medium, develop a style, hone their craft. It’s appropriate. They realize that flitting from form to form is disastrous–it ends with an inability to actually communicate what they feel and what they wish to portray.  Eventually they come to realize that they need form.  However, there are those moments when all the paints get thrown out. All the old colors are cast aside. The canvas is exchanged for the brick wall, etc…  In other words their own creativity, the desire to birth something new can no longer live within the old and well developed form.  So they strike out. They discover diversity and a meaningful difference.  Some would be tempted to say that they no longer need form or use it. But the truth is, they’ve just changed forms.  Even abstract painters or modern instillation creators are still inhabiting a particular place.

This is true of church.  We invest ourselves in a place. We throw ourselves into a particular aspect of God or each other and experience it fully.  Eventually though this changes. We struggle with what had previously been functional and now just feels like formula.  Then we “blow it up”. We go back to the drawing board. it’s tempting, in that deconstructive and reconstructive phase, to think that we are tossing aside all form. The reality is that we are simply exchanging.  We’re adapting. We’re being provoked. We’re investing in a different medium. 

I believe there has to be a tension and a truce struck between inconoclasts/puritans who would shatter every idol (save the idol of shattering every idol), and those who cling to their distinct channels of worship.  The truth is that we need both. There are two giftings at work here–prophet and priest.  One calls out authentic truth and the other ministers through symbol and sacrifice.  This leads to another similarity:

Discipline vs. Spontenaity

Most artists I know have both a rebel and a dictator vying for control of their soul ;)  And that’s a positive thing.  On one hand there is the side of them that can be in the middle of conversation, then suddenly inspired runs to a wall and starts painting in a frenzy, mad vibrant colors.  That’s pure spontenaity.  You can’t restrain that kind of lightening strike, nor can you replicate it.  But then there are the dry spaces…the times when you just don’t want to get out of bed.  In those moments the dictator comes out and in spite of lack of inspiration you go and do what you have always done. You paint. You draw. You write. You sculpt. You create even when you’re uncreative. And then lightening strikes again.

The church is like this. My experience with church life is that it can be a constant war between those who long for spontenaity and those who want order or organization. But this needn’t be a war. We need both. One gives life to other in an infinte circle. We need to room to feel like its ok to dash away from what we were planning on doing. But we also need to plan on doing something so that we’re in the right spot at the right time.  Faith practice gives birth to faith experience.  There is a healthy balance.

At the end of the day creativity/art and church share the same dynamic tensions. Rather than casting one side out and only holding on to the part that makes sense to this moment, we embrace both and live in that tension. That itself is an act of creative empowerment.

Art.

Sorry for the proliferation of quotes…but I think each of them is inspiring and gives great insight.

Why indeed must ‘God’ be a noun? Why not a verb…the most active and dynamic of all? …It is the creative potential itself in human beings that is the image of God…” –Mary Daly (theologian)

“We must accept that this creative impulse within us is God’s creative pulse itself.” Joseph Chilton Pearce

“God must become an activity in our consciousness” Joel Goldsmith

“Why should we all use our creative power….? Because there is nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold and compassionate, so indifferent to fighting and the accumulation of objects and money.” Brenda Ueland

“The purpose of art is not a rarified, intellectual distillate–it is Life, intensified brilliant Life.” Alain Arias-Misson

“It is the task of art to undo the work of our vanity, our passions, our spirit of imitation, our abstract intelligence, our habits…making us travel back in the direction from which we have come to the depths where what has really existed lies unknown within us…” Marcel Proust

I find myself in a reconstructive phase where I am re-imaging, along with others, what a collective of people engaged with God, each other, and the world around them could look like.  In many ways this is, as my friend Ryan observed, a very personal activity of “leaving behind an artifact”–a commemoration of the journey I’m on. 

Church is a hard word for me. Mainly because I’ve been actively engaged in comparing the Worst of what it has been and has become with the Best of other faith traditions or my own idealism. Still, it becomes easier for me to use this word when I talk about it using metaphores.  Church as…well, for one, (and owing a stiff tip of the hat to Troy Bronsink for the specific articulation of this metaphor)…art. 

That’s right…you heard me…Church as Art.

I believe that this is actually the most important and basic foundational piece of moving forward with people trying to live in the way of Jesus.

First…allow me to define Art.

Anthropologists define art as “the creative use of imagination to interpret, express, and engage life, modifying experienced reality in the process.”

To put it in my words, art is approaching life with a degree of authenticity, imagination, and experiment.  In this process, one often births artifacts–visible and tangible reminders of the places we have been and the beliefs we have held. 

Art isn’t limited to paintings, sculpture, drawing, music, etc… (though it certainly does include those). Actually art is simply creativity expressed. 

Why is this important?

Believe it or not we do not see the world as it is, but actually as we believe it to be. We are constantly engaged in interpret ting our environment through a complicated series of images and the framing stories that we tell ourselves.  When our ability to engage those with imagination is damaged we begin to interpret the world in harmful and unproductive ways. 

Culturally, few of us are immune to the lack of creativity that dominates Western culture for the last 250 years.  Left brain logistics are taught, reinforced, and invisibly upheld as the dominant way of viewing the world. Newtonian science has instructed us to see the universe as a great clock-like machine–Enlightenment inspired creatonism has maintained a view of God, actually not as creator, but as machinist or cosmic tinker. The professions that were most desirable in the last two centuries have been ones that processed accounts, calculated numbers, memorized tombs of law, and treated patients with cold impersonalities.  This sort of rigid thinking has led to the most atrocious wars known to man, the most destructive weapons capable of being used, and a general lack of wonder, mystery, and awe towards the universe.  Without imagination, fear NOT hope takes over. We become territorial, isolated, and repressed.

The solutions we are often offered for our world problems are as calculating and cold as the last, failed, set. In fact, some have commented that the central aspect of Western culture today is the failure to create anything new–caught in a holding pattern where regurgitation is the only option. For something to change…well…something’s gotta change.

And something IS changing:

Until recently, the abilities that led to success in school, work, and business were characteristic of the left hemisphere. They were the sorts of linear, logical, analytical talents measured by SATs and deployed by CPAs. Today, those capabilities are still necessary. But they’re no longer sufficient. In a world upended by outsourcing, deluged with data, and choked with choices, the abilities that matter most are now closer in spirit to the specialties of the right hemisphere – artistry, empathy, seeing the big picture, and pursuing the transcendent”

Imaginers NOT Managers

“The spiritual life of the West, which is impoverished and depressed could be seen as a failure to engage with imagination”. The Bible is approached boringly, with absolute literalism.  Church boards or elder councils are filled, not with artists and imaginers but with managers and pragmatists.  On and on it goes…while the spiritual life of the West starves; not for lack of truth but for lack imagination on how to engage and express it.

Simply put, if religion (in the best sense) hopes to address the needs of the world today, hopes to relate to God in anything but rote isolation, hopes to experience lasting renewal it must reactivate it’s view of God as Artist(literally Creator), of spiritual community as Art (literally the product of imagination, experiment and authenticity), and individuals as artists (those who labor to conceive and birth visible expressions of hope and love.)

Was Jesus Creative?

Some people will challenge spiritual community, or church, as Art purely on the basis that they fail to see Jesus as a cultural creative.  I think this may be short sighted. It may also stem from a literalist and unimaginative reading of the ancient texts.  Consider that in the earliest communities of Christians thought it was important to remember 34 miracles and not one of them was a repeat of the one before. Consider that Jesus’ profession might accurately be called “story teller” because of his preferred mode of communication. Consider that a number of times he compelled his students to think creatively about how they would approach his world.  Consider that one of his apprentices would later remember Jesus’ ministry not as miraculous but instead filled with artwork…pictures…symbols…literally SIGNS. 

I would suggest that viewing Jesus as an artist and provocateur may be one of the most important shifts in transitioning from a shame based reading of Christianity to one of hope and joy.

Unblocking

This will require some unblocking.  Most of us mistrust our creative sensibilities.  Imagination is culturally another word for “fake” or “not real”.  And so many have been conditioned to think critically not creatively that their inner critic is a giant compared to the grasshopper of their imagination.  In order to approach the deep issues facing the world currently, in order to live and participate in community and indeed perhaps even in order to approach God in a journey of transformation, we may need to simply learn how to approach a blank page or a canvas or a lump of clay.  The liberation of one faculty of creativity allows for release in other areas also. 

So…let’s be creative…let’s explore and discover and then express those monumental and mundane artifacts that are generated.  Let’s celebrate. And most of all, let’s learn to re-engage the God, each other, and our selves with experiment, authenticity, and imagination…as art.

This Morning’s Creativity

Sola Luna

Sola Luna

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