a non-violent resistance born of worship and the arts...
Sometimes friends, colleagues or even members of the church ask me: "How can you be soassertive about the importance of the arts and the importance of beauty - to say nothing of your relentless commitment to contemplation - in a political environment like our own?" That's my sanitized rendering of this critique - it is usually much more crude and sometimes even cruel. Such is one of the problems with our culture's addiction to binary thinking: we are aghast at paradox, uncomfortable with ambiguity and unfamiliar with nuance. We tend to demand either/or solutions to all our problems. And insist that our leaders act in strong, declarative ways whether they are facing real, exaggerated or even imagined enemies. We are afraid of the darkness, denying its wisdom and value to all types of regeneration, even as our arrogance shrivels our souls. In a word, our imaginations atrophy when we practice idolatry: the more we bow down and worship the false gods of certainty, utilitarianism and the bottom line, the more we repress the sacred healing born of beauty and contemplation.
In 1934, T.S. Elliot articulated this sickness:
O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying,
the endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
all our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
Nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries bring us
farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.
Ginsberg echoed this same lament twenty years later in "Howl" when he wept:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night…
And so it continues: the arts implore us to pause and honor the deep rhythm and wisdom of true life while our addiction to the market place squeezes awe and compassion out of our hearts. There was a time when public schools not only taught poetry, but required engagement with song, dance, physical education and philosophy. There is a minor resurgence of the value of the arts taking place in some educational circles today, but after three generations of stripping our schools of everything except science and math, we have succeeded in fulfilling the prophecy Aldous Huxley envisioned in Brave New World. Neil Postman said it best in Amusing Ourselves to Death in 1985: our world has become not what Orwell feared in 1984, but rather the doped-out pseudo-utopia that Huxley prophesied.
But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell's dark vision, there was another - slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling:Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
Watching the recent Republican debates brought this additional quote to mind:
When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility... We do not measure a culture by its output of undisguised trivialities, but by what it claims as significant.
Now cut back to my opening query: why am I so assertive about the reclamation of the arts in worship and everyday existence; why do I insist we relearn the ways of contemplation for our generation? One of my mentors in the work of culture care, the visual artist Makoto Fujimura, is unequivocal. In a March 3, 2016 address in Pasadena, Mako stated:
To ask “what if?” is not just idealism or false hope or fantasy. “What if” questions are filled with hope and faith while acknowledging our struggle for that quest. To ask “what if?” today is to say, “I have a dream.” What I call “culture care” is a non-violent resistance to culture war; culture care is not to wage war over territories of culture which only leads to polarization, but it is to lay down the weapons of ideology, and instead to sow seeds of goodness, truth, and beauty into the ecosystem of culture—into the cultural soil of our cities, including Los Angeles.
To say "I have a dream today" is to plant seeds of hope in the arid soil ofdisappointment and despair; to say “I have a dream” today is to raise seedlings of joy and peace in the midst of the bitter taste of suffering and injustice; to say “I have a dream” today is to water the “oaks of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:3) in a land full of fissures of division and polarization. To say “I have a dream today” is to—even in tainted ground such as Japanese soil poisoned by the fallout of nuclear attacks—plant sunflower seeds, as one Japanese farmer did soon after the 3/11 tsunami catastrophe. He planted them because sunflowers remove the radioactive isotopes out of the soil. To say “I have a dream” today is to create beauty as the pursuit of the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
Why, then, do I insist on quiet time for contemplation each Sunday? Because we are surrounded by an ocean of ugly noise that steals our ability to rest and reflect. Why is it essential to move and interact with our bodies and our buildings during our time of prayer? Because most of our experience is divorced from human encounters with other beings rendering us isolated and awkward. Why is there jazz, folk, high church chant, pietistic hymnody, organ, guitar, bass and drums played within nearly every liturgy? Because we exist in a multi-cultural, multi-generational, multi-faith world that is filled with beauty if only we had ears to hear. Liturgy - from the Greek meaning "the work of the people" - cannot advance segregation. Rather, worship must help us integrate the bold love of the Lord into our ordinary, walking around lives. Anything less strikes me as idolatry or vulgar sentimentalism. Mako concludes his address a prophetic warning:
What we are experiencing this election cycle is but a disfigurement of democracy. Instead of aspiring to the “better angels of our nature,” we have become dark, mutated angels fallen to the temptations of culture war. Mr Trump, I suggest, is fallout from those wars, a gusher erupting from the fissures of culture wars. He successfully took advantage of culture war polarity to focus the media on himself and his own ideas of “winning.” He gained this dominance first by intentionally firing incendiary remarks to pressure the fault lines of culture wars, recasting everyone other than himself “losers” from the starting line. We may yet be able to elect the culture wars candidates of our choice, but we all lose in that process, degrading the integrity of our culture in the process. No matter who wins this election, an age of disillusionment will be ushered in with the new occupant of the White House.
After relearning to "see with the eyes of my heart" on sabbatical, I am more certain than before that our worship - and our community building and justice work - are an integrated whole. Like a Celtic monastery in the Dark Ages of Europe, our worship must keep beauty, truth and goodness alive. We must actively strive to be a center where the head and heart, body and soul, dwell together in unity. We must consciously celebrate a ministry of culture for this is an integrated, albeit paradoxical, expression of non-violent resistance to the ugly barbarism that has become the status quo in 21st century America.