Beckoning Beauty – Thoughts on Communication Technology

January 26th, 2013

What a wondrous age we live in: The iPod, iTunes, YouTube, Pandora, Rdio, Spotify, Facebook. Communication technology that is completely customizable to our own individual likings. Windows into the world that filter out everything that does not capture our interest. If we don’t like what we see or hear, we can delete it, turn it off, filter out similar content, and take control over what we perceive.

communication technology

We’re finally getting what every person who has ever lived dreamed of: a life of complete control. A life where if we don’t appreciate something, we change it. It used to be that only kings and the very wealthy could decide what art they wanted to enjoy, and even then they had to wait for it to arrive. Today, if we want to see a Monet or hear a Beethoven, we just search for it and it is ready and waiting for our enjoyment. If we change our minds halfway through, no one is offended when we leave our private concert hall or gallery. We just push stop and we are happy again.

communication technology

This mentality has begun to creep into the physical world too, but we’re getting used to it. Students sink into their communication technology kingdom during class. Friends text their digital subjects while spending time together in the uncontrollable physical world. Although employees may not own the world they’re being paid to occupy, they may continually visit a world they do own while on their shift. A father may not have control over his children, but if he lets his children build and rule their own worlds through communication technology, Daddy can get back to controlling his.

Some people may try to convince us that a personal and customizable life is not reality, but real life is generally determined by a conglomeration of experience. Digital life is real life in so far as it forms a part of this conglomeration. Digital life is not a different life, as many have tried to believe, it’s simply a different part of life–a powerful one that allows us to rule our own universe. No matter how much we attempt to separate the world we rule from the world in which we live, these two will always be intertwined.

But I’m outside of my field. I don’t understand the effects of the digital world on relationships and the like. I’m not a psychologist. I’m not a pastor or a priest. But I am an artist, and I’m very concerned about the consequences of digital life for people’s aesthetic wellness.

A sociologist’s (Sherry Turkle) views on the effects of communication technology.

See below for the rest of this essay.

Sunset

For the most part, our communication technology kingdoms are only one part of our lives. We still have to travel, eat, sleep, participate in funerals and weddings, work on our houses, cut our grass, and the like. All of these things take place in a world outside of our control. We can’t help that the roof got old, we got tired, or we got hungry. But something we have gained almost inherent control of is the art we consume. For example, if we want to enjoy a fine meal, we either have to cook, pay for it, or let ourselves be at the mercy of a host. But if we want to listen to fine music, the Chicago symphony orchestra is at our disposal for no charge. Is it any coincidence that film, music, photography, and video games are the most popular forms of art? Our aesthetic world (at least for our favorite two senses) is completely under our digital control. Is it a simple coincidence that our favorite art forms give us complete control over our aesthetic environment, or is our preference shaped by our desire to be in control of our universe?

To answer these questions, it is important to realize that beauty’s existence does not depend on our perception. A sunset is beautiful, not because our minds project beautiful feelings onto it, but because it imprints its own beauty on our minds. Unfortunately, we have come under the notion that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Friends, that’s just not biblical. This notion implies that man’s projection of his own beauty onto God’s creation makes God’s work worth enjoying. However, the creation account makes it abundantly clear that the world was beautiful before man even existed. This becomes very evident when God says of his creation, “It is very good.” No matter how passionately our proud eyes try to project our own beauty onto the world we behold, the fact remains that beauty goes into our minds and not out from them.

communication technology

So then, how does complete control over our aesthetic environment affect our appreciation of beauty? Our aesthetic kingdoms are inclination amplifiers that cause us to gravitate even more strongly toward our hearts’ natural tendencies, but without accountability. They enable us to flippantly consume increasing amounts of what we enjoy without the bother of others’ insight. If beauty is defined by God, it is dangerous for us to gorge ourselves on object after object without another’s opinion about what we’re consuming. Ultimately, this leads to the most dangerous aesthetic wellness problem: letting ourselves consume only those aesthetic objects to which we are naturally inclined. The result is that we only consume art that aligns with our personal projections of beauty, while our projections slowly erode into aesthetic chaos. This is not God’s plan for our lives. God does not want us to beckon beauty and shape it with our minds; rather he wants our minds to be beckoned and shaped by beauty (Romans 12:1-8Philippians 4:8, II Corinthians 3:18).

Finally, how does the complete control of our environment affect our community? Art is a tool to bring people together, but our communication technology kingdoms create reasons to keep people apart. Beckoning beauty through communication technology replaces aesthetic participation in our community. If we no longer need other people in order to be fed aesthetically, we won’t attend artistic community events. If no one attends, no one will create. This problem is compounded in light of our diminishing appreciation of beauty. Eventually everyone prefers his own narrow and unique brand of beauty and this drives us apart aesthetically. It’s naive to think the aesthetic world isn’t part of the real world. Aesthetic disconnection is a problem as real as any other. When we drift apart aesthetically, we drift apart. Plain and simple.


Art and Imagination

November 29th, 2010

This an essay that a good (anonymous) friend of mine wrote a while back.  It seems to tie some of the things that we’ve been discussing together and I’m exited about showing this to all of you.  Don’t forget to click the “like” button on the bottom!

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Art is a set of actions, rather than an object. When I see a painting, I see the actions someone has done with a set of given materials. Artistry is an act of creation. Thus, giving someone a cold glass of water in Christ’s name is a work of art. Witnessing and giving a sermon is a work of art. We believe that the Holy Spirit inspires us and brings new life, which in turn changes the way we act. In this way, spiritual fruit, the act, becomes art: we engage in the act of creation, imitating God in the beginning.

When we see the natural world, we see the creation of the Master Artist, even though both the natural realm and our perceptual faculties are filthy with sin. As disciples, one of the ways we grow is by fellowshipping (communicating) with other Spirit-indwelt believers.  This communication may take many forms, but it may be boiled down to action. A sermon, for example, is an action: it is art. The preacher engages in an action that involves communicating truth to the congregation.

Art, then, is a witness and a discipler, because it is a set of actions that communicates truth from a Spirit-indwelt believer to the world. This holds true for music, literature, paintings, sculpture, architecture, etc. All of these forms may be as didactic as any Western sermon (though most CCM today is not. As Grudem notes in his Systematic Theology, “[W]hen I began to select hymns that correspond to the great doctrines of the Christian faith, I realized that the great hymns of the church throughout history have a doctrinal richness and breadth that is still unequaled”). Art in this sense, can also do the work of systematic theology texts (and for many, it is more memorable.)

All of this hinges on the act of communicating, which invokes the concept of the metaphor. Because our feeble brains are not capable of comprehending God fully, we understand his characteristics are like unto other things, but always better (here the imagination is at work). So when David declares that “The Lord is my rock, and my fortress,” we obviously don’t believe that the Lord is actually a rock or a fortress, but our imagination allows us to make the jump from that metaphor to an understanding of the Lord really is like: stable and unmoved, like a fortress, only better. This is how the imagination is tied to worship. The imagination allows us to make attempts at seeing what cannot be seen from what we can see.

Art is a way of explaining these things because it welds the natural realm to transcendence. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth forth knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard.” The ultimate tapestry reveals truth in a way that is not actual speech, but it is of course communication. Human art, then, is a way of imitating God and conveying his truth.

Art, then, can be a sermon. It can be a teacher, a discipler. Art is one of the best ways to awaken our minds to the worldly areas of our minds, since much art from the past was created by the greatest Christian thinkers of all time. When Dante came to Purgatory, the place of cleansing and preparation for Paradise, he noticed many souls staring at carvings in the stone walls. The carvings were works of art, many of them portraying Biblical scenes, and the point seems to be that art can be used by God as a purifier, a conveyor of truth and beauty. Dante, Dostoevsky, Caravaggio, and Bach are no less brilliant teachers in my mind than Grudem.

Beyond the teaching aspect, art can also be legitimately pleasurable. On this Calvin writes, “Has the Lord clothed the flowers with the great beauty that greets our eyes, the sweetness of the smell that is wafted upon our nostrils, and yet it will be unlawful for our eyes to be affected by that beauty, or our sense of smell by the sweetness of that odor…Did he not, in short, render many things attractive to us apart from their necessary use?” So apart from the necessaries, there is something about beauty that is good for us. One must ask, “Why, then, did God give us flowers? or pleasure at all?” I submit that we not only learn more about the beauty and the joy of the Lord, but it is an aesthetic experience that is wholly separate from knowledge and wisdom, and equally desirable.

One final point involves the skill necessary to complete certain pieces of art. When building the tabernacle, the Israelites selected only the finest craftsmen to complete the Lord’s house. This suggests that only the best will do for God, as in the first fruits. This is deeply connected with how David speaks of worshiping God in the “beauty of holiness.” To be holy is to be separate. There are many works of art that the layperson will never be able to imitate; these beautiful artworks (sets of actions) are beautiful because they are distinct and set apart. This suggests that true beauty is separate and transcendent, and that all beauty that we can ever see in art is merely a signifier, a pointer to true beauty: God.


Aesthetic Education; See the Art in and Around You

October 13th, 2010

We’ve previously defined aesthetic as the cumulative effect of every component within a specific framework.  Art produces aesthetic, but not just art produced by humans.  God is an artist too, and it is a sin to be indifferent to his creative work, the pinnacle of which is mankind. If only we realized the wonderful artistry found in each one of us we would not be as likely to sin by showing indifference let alone contempt towards each other and the world.  How do we recognize this Godly beauty in creation?  How do we develop it within ourselves?  How do we bring it out in each other?

Every person you’ve ever met has an aesthetic, and I’m sure you are well aware of this whether you’ve thought about it or not.  I’m referring to the cumulative effect of a person’s existence upon your senses.  Analyzing a person’s aesthetic is a completely rational way of evaluating another’s impression on your own mind.  Some components of a person are obvious:  physical appearance, personality, body language, accent, interests, intelligence, etc.  These are the things that determine whether or not a person is attractive, fun, annoying, or simply “nice”.  But there is something about a human being’s aesthetic that is unique; it’s that ability to behave in the way the person chooses.  It’s the ability to go against what is natural to human behavior or to not.  These choices are what weigh most heavily on a person’s aesthetic.

This trait of the ability to choose is what animates us and gives value to our lives.  It’s also what gives us the ability to develop virtue and vices.  It creates harmony because it makes chaos possible.  It is the center of our existence and causes within us a spectrum of possibility ranging from beauty to depravity.  It is this one thing that saturates our being and causes all of our other components to be seen by others in a way that will either please or irritate them depending upon the condition of their own aesthetic.

The evil, twisted, or unnatural aesthetic mutilates the beauty of natural human tendency.  It kills, covets, hates, gossips, and corrupts all that is good, having an inherent effect on the person and destroys them.  The aesthetic that chooses what is good goes along with unnatural human tendency and produces love, joy, peace, etc.  It is choice that creates beauty, but because of our desires that are contradictory to the way God designed us to be we all degrade our natural beauty to an extent no matter how good our choices are.  This causes our personal aesthetics to clash and grind against one another so that the whole of creation is degraded by our conduct.

So then, there is inherent aesthetic contrast between a good man and an evil one.  Obviously we’re all evil to an extent and fall somewhere on the spectrum of beauty and depravity.  But it’s important to identify extremes, decide where we fall, and how to progress on the path towards harmony.  But after we’ve done that, we quickly realize that we are not capable of reaching perfect beauty.  We strain ourselves and punish our flesh in a attempt to achieve a character produced by a righteous life.  Then many good-willed people justify their imperfections with the sorts of things the despised use to make themselves feel better; the main justification being the inappropriately ascribed subjectivity of beauty.

We are all created by the work of God, but we are still in progress: designed to make a choice as to whether or not we are going to allow God to animate us, or let our standard-less selves to animate us.  Whether we are to become beautiful works of art by the greatest artist in the universe who spilled His blood over us to complete us and perfect our beauty for the Artist’s glory, or to remain imperfect by rejecting completion.

We creatures are not left without a clue planted within ourselves.  It’s a taste of the perfect beauty we’re made to long for.  It’s the aesthetic of God longing to shine through our distinctive individuality.  This distinctive aesthetic is beyond words, music, or any other form of expression.  It can only be truly observed in the people you do life with.  And even then only in the people who have let themselves be the jars of clay God calls us to be; cracked and broken vessels overflowing with the Spirit of God.  But even with non-believers, glimpses of it can be seen longing to break forth but are suppressed by their desire to create a cheap imitation of themselves, thinking that they are fighting a tendency to be something ordinary.

We, along with the whole of creation, are simply components of one massive work of art.  Human art is a means of trying to assemble reality and make sense of its intricacies.  It is the physical form of asking questions, leaving finding answers to the perceiver.  It points us to the created world in such a way as to seek truth; God’s truth.  Since we ourselves, the physical world, and the spiritual world are all works of art, seeking the deepest truths of life through human art is perfectly logical.

Art does not teach us to know, but to seek to know.  To dwell on mystery.  To ponder various ways in which reality can be assembled and look at truth from a different angle; an intellectual exercise that brings life to your spirit (Roman 12:2, Phillipians 4:8).  Listen, look, read. Attend to various aesthetic objects so that your perception of reality can be sharpened.  Every angle available from which your are able to observe truth should be utilized.  Therefore, Aesthetic Education in the Church is not only necessary, but it is essential.


Aesthetic Education; Understanding Scripture

October 9th, 2010

Trust in the LORD with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;

in all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make your paths straight.

Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear the LORD and shun evil.

This will bring health to your body
and nourishment to your bones.

Honor the LORD with your wealth,
with the firstfruits of all your crops;

then your barns will be filled to overflowing,
and your vats will brim over with new wine.

My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline
and do not resent his rebuke,

because the LORD disciplines those he loves,
as a father the son he delights in.

Blessed is the man who finds wisdom,
the man who gains understanding,

for she is more profitable than silver
and yields better returns than gold.

She is more precious than rubies;
nothing you desire can compare with her.

Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.

Her ways are pleasant ways,
and all her paths are peace.

She is a tree of life to those who embrace her;
those who lay hold of her will be blessed.

By wisdom the LORD laid the earth’s foundations,
by understanding he set the heavens in place;

by his knowledge the deeps were divided,
and the clouds let drop the dew.

My son, preserve sound judgment and discernment,
do not let them out of your sight;

they will be life for you,
an ornament to grace your neck.

Then you will go on your way in safety,
and your foot will not stumble;

when you lie down, you will not be afraid;
when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.

-Proverbs 3:5-24 NIV

After I read these beautiful words I looked out over the hay field to the trees surrounding it and observed the wispy clouds that seemed to envelop the very essence of all that was in my purview.  “By wisdom the LORD laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place.”  The simple experience enthralled me so much because perceiving so many wonderful things that fit together so perfectly was the very act of experiencing the wisdom of God.  Looking at the scene, thinking about what I had just read, and comparing it to the condition of my own heart was enough to be able to put that moment into an eternal context and dwell on it for the rest of my eternal existence.

What exactly was it that spoke to me so powerfully?  Was it the text itself?  Was it its meaning? Was it the encouragement the words brought in light of my broken elbow?  Was it other passages of Scripture coming to mind as I read the text?  Was it where I was when I read it?  Was it the cool evening breeze that picked up and diverted my attention to physical pleasure at just the right moment?  Was it all of the various emotions, sensations, and realizations being enjoyed in separate parts of my mind?  It certainly was all of these things, but it was so much more than that at the same time.  It was all of these elements working together to create a cumulative effect that refreshed my spirit and renewed my focus on God.

A week before this event, I had worked my night shift that Friday morning, and went straight from work to help with my church’s version of VBS (Sports Week).  I’d been there helping with the music and mentoring 12 and 13 year olds. I was very tired the whole week, but I felt so blessed to be able to be a part of what God did that week so the fatigue didn’t bother me.  Then in a split second I was laying on the basketball court with a fracture in my elbow that required surgery the following Monday.  As I recovered I’d been completely helpless and dependent on the wonderful people at my church.  But I’m not the kind of man that likes being dependent on people.  I love to help, but not to be helped; yet I needed a lot of help this summer.  That Thursday evening I was very upset.  I couldn’t work, couldn’t pack my stuff for moving that Saturday because I was so tired, could barely cook, and I wasn’t supposed to drive.  So the Spirit of God led me outside so that I could experience Him through His Word.  He gave me a gift of strength because I had very little left.  He led me to that passage, that physical context, and that level of brokenness so that He could breath His own strength into me.  He communicated his Word to me through an aesthetic experience.  He gave me a gift of realizing a new implication of that passage which resulted in the wonderful joy that is knowing God a little better.

Compare this passage with Psalm 104 and watch a sunset the next time you’re really down.  I dare you to not feel something.  How does God do it?  He does it by connecting His Word to His creation and then back to your heart.  That’s aesthetic.  That’s seemingly unrelated things being connected in your mind to create a cumulative effect so profound that you can’t contain your joy.  Aesthetic education teaches us how to make those connections.

But that’s just part of the story.  Let’s address the Bible outside of any other context.  Are we supposed to think about the Bible as a sequence of words put together in a certain way so that we know how we’re supposed to live?  Are we supposed to read Leviticus and begin stoning people who work on the sabbath, or are we supposed to connect that to Mathew 5, Luke 6, and Romans?  Or let me raise another issue.  How can you expect a high schooler to enjoy Jeremiah when they don’t have a firm enough grasp on literature to read Edgar Allen Poe?  How can anyone understand David’s passion for God when they can’t figure out how to connect the psalms to his life?

Aesthetic Education increases our ability to perceive everything, even Scripture and how it’s integrated with all of reality.  Find an artist (painter, dancer musician, etc.) and start taking lessons; not so that you can create great art, but so that you can perceive great art.  If you can’t perceive human art well, how do you expect to stand a chance in accurately understanding the greatest literary work ever written?  The words of God created the universe.  Do you really think you can understand them when they’re written down unless you learn to see and understand the world around you?

Don’t just tell your children to read the Bible.  Teach them how.


Art and the Sin of Apathy

September 10th, 2010

On Monday through Friday I wake up at 7:00am, make a latte or some coffee, and spend the first hour or so of my day with God.  My wife wakes up at 8:00, I spend some time with her over breakfast and a little more coffee, and we’re both off to work by 8:45.  The job I have isn’t great, but between our two incomes we make it just fine.  Plus I very much enjoy the people I work with and building relationships with my co-workers has proven to be a very positive part of my life.  At 5:00pm I punch out and head home where my wife and I make dinner and discuss the intimate details of our young lives together.  On Wednesday nights we go to prayer meeting at our church.  On Friday nights we spend time building relationships with people in our church over dinner and games to start the weekend during which we take care of our domestic logistics and rest from a productive week of work and study (we try to learn more about various subjects with our spare time with the resources available to us).  This is the way our quiet and beautiful life together has been for some time now, and although children or unexpected changes may shape our life differently in the foreseeable future, for now things are stable and there is no reason to alter anything in any way.

For those of you who haven’t realized that I haven’t actually been describing my life, welcome back to reality.  I have only been describing the life I long for in my weaker moments.  While its a perfectly plausible and very happy reality for many people my age, I am unable to pursue it because of the task that God has clearly set before me.

Retain the image I have set before you and take it to its logical conclusion.  A happy couple with no real ambition outside of loving God and loving others.  They have a good marriage with no pressing needs or concerns; just two people living comfortable in the presence of God.  Let this comfort go on long enough and eventually their passion for life will fade.  Scripture will become words, the redundancy of work will not bring fulfillment, relationships will become stale.  How can this be kept from happening?

This is one of the best apologies I can give for undertaking this seemingly masochistic pursuit of music composition.  What better way is there to look at specific aspects of the world in a fresh way than through a form of expression that uses a completely universal and wonderfully unique method of creative communication?  What a fresh and wonderful way of portraying the noise of our distracted culture John Corigleono presented in Circus Maximus.  What a beautifully passionate and hopeful outlook on death Takashi Yoshimatsu presented in his “Fuzzy Bird Sonata”.  How do people fight their apathetic outlook without various forms of artistic expression helping them attend to existence in ways they’ve never considered?

At this point I feel the need to discuss apathy.  First of all, it’s a sinful attitude to be indifferent towards God’s creative work which is part of his glory.  If it’s a sin to be indifferent to creation, how much more to be indifferent to his word, his will, or your fellow man for whom Christ died?  Is God an apathetic being in regards to anything?  Since he is not, we cannot be either and art keeps us from this sin.  Apathy is a powerful temptation because it is a seemingly useful tool for acquiring happiness (or a cheap substitute for it).  One way to eliminate pain is to stop caring about the part of you that is in pain.  You get upset with politics so you stop caring; life gets a little easier at the expense of something important.  Thus apathy leads to bliss which is an “emotion” enjoyed by fools.

So then, apathy is to be avoided at every level.  Care deeply about God, people, the created world, and the dark powers that work against them.  Do everything in your power to maintain your passion for good.  But how?  Well, as I was saying, perceiving the world in a variety of different ways will help you to continue caring.  Keeping a fresh perceptive on the whole of life will keep you from the sin of apathy and help to bring you into a full and rich awareness of the wonderful life that God has given you.

Sorry if I sound pretentious, but the fine arts (by that I mean work that actually attempts to say something worthwhile) are more important than the football game. Spending an hour with great art will open your senses to new ways of perceiving creation, people, God, and your own life in wonderfully rich ways.  Do consider it.

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