Reflections on Art, Faith, and Life

Month: May, 2012

Sacred vs Secular

I have pondered this alleged dichotomy for years now, and I just cannot bring myself to accept it. There are probably some things that are easier to deal with when they’re black and white, but in this case, I believe a huge disservice is done. Before I go any farther, please let me assure you that I’m fully aware that there is content that is definitely secular and content that is definitely sacred. That needs no explanation, and hence, is not the focus of this missive.

What concerns me is how we utilize these labels as though they are mutually exclusive. If we allow ourselves to place things in one of these two “camps,” I fear we will miss some great riches and we will get blown “off course” from the intended way of things. I don’t want to leave this point in the realm of the purely philosophical, so please stay with me while I try to illustrate what I mean.

I love the Frost poems “Choose Something Like a Star” and “The Road Less Traveled.” They feed my artistic soul. They certainly stand as great art within the poetry genre. As a musician, I am drawn to how Randall Thompson set these texts to music. Technically, these are “secular” texts – am I not to glory in the God that gave Frost and Thompson the ability to create such marvelous art both separately and collectively? Have we not been given gifts from above to offer back to the Giver and to humankind? As we give these gifts, is this not a “sacred” endeavor? How can we possibly separate the two?!

Do we take a “secular” text or experience less seriously than a “sacred” one? Why would we not honor the creative process and the Creator that imbued us with it in all that we do. Here is where the schism allows danger. If I can pigeon-hole something as secular, then possibly I don’t have to give it the attention I would if it was sacred. Also, if something is “merely secular,” it might allow me to not think of myself as being spiritual as I experience or create it. Is there ever a time we should approach anything as though we are NOT spiritual beings? I believe this is catastrophic to not only our creative selves, but to our spiritual selves as well.

When we are moved and touched – regardless whether it is through the sacred or the secular – it is still a spiritual experience! I passionately believe that the sacred can abide within the secular, and indeed it must do so every place that it can. I can’t embrace that we’re better off as artists or as humans if we allow the bi-polar dualism that results in a sacred-secular split to take root within us. I am deeply moved by spiritual truths; I am deeply moved by artistic truths. I do not believe they must be mutually exclusive any more than I believe that sacred and secular must be. I think we rob ourselves of great treasures when we permit the “vs” to come between sacred and secular.



Art vs. Entertainment

We live in a culture saturated with entertainment choices! Never before in history has there been so many opportunities and options for people seeking entertainment. It could be said that we are becoming entertainment junkies – gotta have that next fix, you know?! Visual and aural stimulus flood our sensory perceptions on a 24-7 basis if we so choose. There are some aspects of this I enjoy. It’s nice to select particular music and listen only to what I want. The technological quality of these offerings is incredible. In this vast ocean of choice, there is little of what I would constitute as art.

I am somewhat worried that our culture is losing touch with significant art of the past in the rush and preoccupation of today’s technology and easy access. It concerns me that our government does not sponsor art on a national level as other countries do, but our legislators will get involved when professional sports are out of whack. We highly value and subsidize professional sports, which is entertainment, but not art – what does this say about us?

What is the difference? Entertainment is fleeting – that’s why we need another dose so quickly. Entertainment is merely something to fill time. It’s another way to either stay busy or multi-task, both which are highly overrated. We have convinced ourselves being busy, multi-tasking, and constantly devouring entertainment is essential. And the entertainment industry will gladly feel our addiction (reference all the garbage called reality tv, which truly is an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one).

Art has usually stood the test of time and allows one to think about things of substance in some way. I know to some readers this just reads like another elitist stance, but I think the subtle differences are salient to our spiritual, emotional, and sometimes physical health. Art shapes us, changes us, molds us, and causes us to reflect – entertainment well, it just entertains. Our frantic lives need significant doses of real art! Please understand that I am not declaring entertainment as the anti-christ; I am saying that our lives are easily tipped off-balance when we get too much entertainment and not enough art.

This past semester has been one of the most demanding of my life. My parents’ health has been atrocious, and it has placed understandably huge demands on my life and time. I’ve had to balance the “personal” and “professional” as never before. I realized early on that mere entertainment would never help sustain me through this – it just doesn’t contain the substance. I put a “Mozart at Midnight” cd in my truck in January. It is a compilation of slow, beautiful, contemplative music from the master.  Every time I went anywhere, my traveling companion was the Mozart Clarinet Concerto (movement 2) among other incredible pieces. This music did something to me that I couldn’t get from stuff “on the radio.” I listened to Gregorian chant, Palestrina, Rachmaninoff, and other music that feeds my soul – not just my ears!

Everyone needs art that helps their “true north” stay established. It saddens me that we are in a culture that appears to value this less and less. Ask people about the role that museums, symphonies, operas, ballets, choral concerts, galleries, etc… play in their daily life and you will better understand the point I’m trying to make. In my neck of the woods, a typical response declaring the above listed as pretty irrelevant might be closely followed by a “Go Huskers!” Exactly my point! When we saturate our lives with entertainment that doesn’t cause us to think of mankind’s great themes, when we settle for quick “candy bar” music, when we support entertainment to art’s exclusion – we become malnourished, both individually and collectively.

I urge you to take some time, and time is indeed what it will take, to find some ART that causes you to reflect about your life, your mood, your choices, etc…. Spend some time watching or listening to things created by other artists to express their view of some eternal or earthly truth. Let it sink deeply into your heart, mind, and soul. Make it a habit and I believe you will see a positive change in your life.

The Desert Experience

My recent thoughts have repeatedly returned to “the desert experience,” so I thought I would share my thoughts concerning it. The most significant desert experience I can think of is both literal and metaphorical – it is the one Jesus was subjected to at the beginning of his ministry. It was undoubtedly a time of intense focus on the task that lie ahead, and it was apparently a necessary part of the preparation for his future journey. I believe it was the time in Jesus’ life where he settled every question he might have had about the necessity of the Cross. His resolve coming out of the desert was absolute. The devil tempted him, and when Jesus continually responded with scripture, the end of the temptation incident mentions that Satan “left him for a more opportune season.” Satan threw three of his best jabs at Jesus, but failed to land any of them, because Jesus was able to block them. His desert experience had left him with the determination to do things the Father’s way. This intent was acute enough to supercede other human needs caused by his time  away from the real world.

Throughout the Bible and throughout history, we are given the accounts of numerous other “desert experiences.” Some of these, as Jesus’ was, are literal – time spent in the desert. Others are metaphorical – time spent away from the hustle and bustle of the normal routine in order to try to achieve a focus of thought and clarity of purpose presently lacking. If some of the greatest minds and spirits the world has known have found it necessary to “experience the desert,” why should we be reticent to do so? I believe that at times, our busyness is attempt to keep from having to go through the cleansing process brought about by the desert. I believe the purging and purification that happens in the desert can be achieved nowhere else, hence, it is imperative that we allow ourselves to endure that part of our journey.

I believe one of the prime directives of the desert is returning  the most salient Voice in our lives to its intended preeminance. Culture seems to have a way of enticing our hearts and minds. Its magnetic attraction tugs on us, and at times, attaches part of itself to us. Sometimes we’re aware of this – sometimes we are not. We are quite accustomed to its ever-present siren song, and it’s easier than I wish for things to affix themselves to my mind, my heart, or my spirit. Things I really didn’t intend to be there! Things that sometimes are contrary to what it is I said I wanted to be about. When the world’s chaff begins to work its way into my physical, emotional, mental, professional, or spiritual self – it is time to head for the desert!

When I hear ONLY the Voice of my creator, it is amazing how quickly the residue is washed away! It’s not always the easiest thing to hear only His voice – that is why it is important to find a place where one can focus on that. The restoration and redemption that can come only from Him, allows a new start, a fresh beginning, a clear focus, and a renewed energy. Have you ever noticed that we feel most like “ourselves,” when we allign that with His will and way? You are the only one that knows if you need a desert experience – it would be better for you to take one than for God to force one upon you!