Saturday, August 31, 2013

Surrendering to Artworks

Bertolt Brecht
The following lines are from the poem “Remembering Marie” by the German poet Bertolt Brecht (1898 –1956).

It was a day in that blue month September
Silent beneath the plum trees’ slender shade
I held her there
My love, so pale and silent
As if she were a dream that must not fade

Above us in the shining summer heaven

There was a cloud my eyes dwelled long upon
It was quite white and very high above us
Then I looked up

And found that it had gone

Even in translation, this portion of Brecht’s poem is profound. When the subject looks up and finds that the cloud has vanished, there is a sense of sadness that hits the reader, though it’s hard to explain just why. One is impressed, on a very deep level, by the transience of time and love. “Remembering Marie” moves us if we let it, yet it does not have any immediate functional value for the Christian life. The value that it has is artistic, not pragmatic.

If we surrender to these types of works and let them work on us as people, we become richer and deeper men and women, and so there ends up being a certain functional value. But that is not where we start. We start by learning to surrender to the artwork and letting it change us in undefinable ways. 

When we surrender to works of art - whether a song, poem, film, novel, painting or ballet – and let the artwork stir our imagination, we are often changed in ways that are hard to quantify. Often the experience may be difficult to articulate and may actually lose something if we try to put it into words. This is what I experienced when I watched the foreign language film The Lives of Others. 

Sometimes we have to simply let ourselves experience a work of art before we try to explain it, to let ourselves surrender to it in a way analogous to our approach to persons. The way to get to know a person is not to begin analyzing him or her, but just to enjoy the relationship, to listen to what the person has to say, to empathize with the person, to allow ourselves to experience life through our friend’s perspective. In doing this, the horizons of our own personhood are expanded. It is the same with literature.

At least that is what I argued in an article I wrote last year for the Colson Center, titled 'Literary Criticism and the Biblical Worldview Part II.' To read the article, click here.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Ken Myers' Music Lectures

In these Epiphany Lectures, Ken Myers (of Mars Hill Audio fame), talks about the importance of music in our culture and the objective nature of music. His insights on musical meaning are truly extraordinary and should be pondered by all Christians.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Trueblood on Work

In his book Your Other Vocation, Elton Trueblood has the following good observations to make about labor.

It is a gross error to suppose that the Christian cause goes forward solely or chiefly on week ends. What happens on the regular weekdays may be far more important, so far as the Christian faith is concerned, than what happens on Sundays. A minority ought to leave their secular employment in order to engage in fulltime work, for the promotion of the gospel, but this is not true of most. Most men ought to stay where they are and to make their Christian witness in ordinary work rather than beyond it.... One of the heartening developments of our time has been the growing awareness, on the part of those touched by the Christian gospel, of the meaning of vocation. The idea is that God can call us to many kinds of activity and that secular work well done is a holy enterprise.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Desensitizing our Youth

In an article I wrote for Salvo 19, titled 'Sex and the Kiddies', I pointed out that when sex is used to sell everything from shoes to vegetables, children become so used to it that they cease to recognize the difference between genuinely sexual and non-sexual things.

Indeed, as children are bombarded with more and more sexual stimuli, they cease to see certain things as sexual in nature, with the consequence that normal sexual barriers disappear.

When low-cut blouses are marketed to 13-year-olds, when children’s music videos are saturated with sexual imagery, and when sex is constantly used to sell all kinds of products to young teens, one can expect many girls to become hyper-sexualized. However, such saturation can equally have a desensitizing effect, since it subtly encourages youth to treat their sexuality as something trivial, benign, and commonplace. Either way, it primes girls for being taken advantage of by men, even perverts. Hyper-sexualized girls will want to have sex, and desensitized girls will be less likely to guard and protect what they have been conditioned to treat as nothing special. In treating sexuality as common, we neutralize its potency, turning it into something tame, benign, and trivial. But in doing that, we put children at risk. To read my entire article about this, click on the following link:

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Monday, August 12, 2013

Relativism in the Kitchen

In my series of articles on the theology of health I point out that many modern Americans find it difficult to get their heads around the fact that food is an area where maturity is even possible in any objective sense. Given our Gnostic assumptions, we tend to think the Lord is only interested in attitude issues, and that the actual stuff of our diet is a thing indifferent to Him. We easily understand that the Lord is concerned in how we eat (i.e., we must be grateful, we mustn’t grumble, etc.) but we instinctively feel He couldn’t possibly care about what we eat.

In my articles on health I prove that such a position is actually unbiblical. I argue that a Christian is not allowed to be a culinary relativist any more than he is allowed to be a moral or aesthetic relativist. Some food actually is objectively superior to other food. Pure organic butter from cows eating real grass actually is objectively better than factory-processed margarine that flies won’t even touch. Yogurt made with rich creamy full-fat milk really is objectively better than a carton of yogurt with an inch of additives that only a scientist can pronounce. When Charlemagne ordered his men to wash their feet before treading out the grapes, the wine they began producing really was objectively better than before these reforms were introduced. It isn’t just that these foods are better for us, though that is certainly true; rather, they actually taste better.

To read more about this, and to learn how a Christian can glorify God by eating healthy, read my articles at the following links:

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Some Crucial Distinctions for the Literary Critic

In an article I wrote last year for the Colson Center, titled 'Literary Criticism and the Biblical Worldview Part 1', I suggested that there are three different levels of engagement with literary texts and it is crucial to keep these levels distinct in our minds.

The first level is to simply explore what a text means. At this level we are concerned with questions of interpretation and we are seeking to clarify the work’s meaning with reference to the intention of the author. So if we were studying Milton’s Samson Agonistes, we might ask how Milton’s blindness helps us to understand what he was trying to say in this tragic drama about Samson’s blindness.

Second, we can approach literary texts through the lens of reception history. So we might ask explore questions like, “How has Samson Agonistes been received throughout its history? What have other people throughout history thought that this play meant?”

Third, we can play around with the text and find new and creative ways to apply it to our unique personal and political situations. So we might ask, “What new insights does Milton’s play shed on religiously motivated violence in a post-9/11 world?”

All three levels are legitimate areas for us as literary critics, and while there may be some overlap between the different levels, it is important to keep them separate. However, postmodern literary theory conflates level one with level three. We see this in the way contemporary critics interpret a text’s meaning in light of their own political and mental circumstances. Thus, they will make statements like, “After 9/11, Samson Agonistes can never mean the same thing again.” Or “After Auschwitz, we can never return to pre-Sanders’ interpretations of the Pauline corpus.”

Sorry folks, but the meaning of Samson Agonistes did not change when the Twin Towers were bombed. The text means the same thing as it did when Milton wrote it. Similarly, while Hitler may have changed a lot of things when he invaded Poland, not even he could alter the meaning of Saint Paul’s epistle to the Galatians.
While there is nothing wrong with using Samson Agonistes to yield fresh insight into religiously motivated violence, we must not fall into the trap of thinking that in doing this we are clarifying the work’s meaning. The postmodernist’s error is precisely his failure to properly distinguish between our own ideologically-motivated readings of texts and the objective meaning of a work grounded in the intent of the author.

Postmodernists do not have a monopoly on this confusion. I have already mentioned the way the Christian community sometimes falls into the same trap, viewing the meaning of a literary work through the lens of its ethical or theological functionality rather than surrendering to the intent of the author. For example, I have a book in my office in which a Christian educator argues that the church in Dorothy Sayers’ murder mystery The Nine Tailors functions as a microcosm of the universe as well as being analogue to Noah’s ark. I have another book in which a Christian educator argues that the King in Shakespeare’s Henry V should actually be seen as portraying “the opposite of a Christian king, everything a Christian king should not be” since he invaded someone else’s territory. But maybe, just maybe, Shakespeare intended Henry V to be taken at face value without us needing to wait nearly 500 years to discover that Shakespeare actually meant the hero to be an anti-hero.

Once again, most of these problems can be avoided if we distinguish between our own ideologically-motivated readings of texts and the objective meaning of a work grounded in the intent of the author.

If we are committed to interpreting texts through the lens of authorial intent, then this should restrain our eagerness to impose Christian morals on a text that was not written specifically for that purpose. While there is a place to play around with texts to find applications that can be adapted to us as Christians (level three), this should never be confused with interpretation (level one).

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