I’ve been doing some reading/thinking/teaching on the role of the church as we engage, and produce art. Art–music, story-telling, painting, film, short story, poetry, etc.–the list is too long to try and cover.
If God is creator and Chief Artist over the Universe (put that on a business card) . . . the church does well when we consider what our relationship and strategy should be
Part of “bearing the image of God” should be, in my humble opinion, to explore God’s call to co-create as part of repairing the world; part of ushering in the age (Kingdom) of human flourishing over all creation (Mk 1:14-15).
Some thoughts you may or may not agree with.
1. Art (film, painting, books, etc) mimics life not the other way around. Ok. So it’s both. But it’s mostly about art as an expression of life. In this case, the egg came before the chicken. This we know.
2. Art (good art) describes life more than it endorses it. I don’t know why this is but many assume that a description of something is necessarily an endorsement of some or all of said “thing.” This is precisely why I’m not a fan of Tarantino’s work.
3. The Bible, in many places, is rated R, in my humble opinion (Hosea, Job, Genesis, 2 Kings, etc). Overall, you could not give the Bible anything other than an R rating. No way. No how. Would love to know what you would rate the Bible. I wonder if those of us who shy away from difficult movies also do the same with the difficult corners/segments of The Story.
4. People’s lives are messy and we tend to respond to art that is true of the full messy experience.
5. Discerning which movies are worth watching is not easy. There are G/PG/PG-13/R movies that are not worth your time. For various reasons. Have some kind of guiding ethical framework. For instance, I’ll watch some pretty dark, slow, boring, tragic movies, but I cannot (for me) possibly sit through another version of this kind of movie. Know yourself. Know how you are wired. But, stretch yourself too. Art breathes life. Don’t cut yourself off from a chance to grow towards God and others. The key is the shift from printed text to image-driven texts. Know how your mind is wired and orchestrated.
7. By telling the truth of the world (how dark it is and how dark it can be) we actually prepare people for the darkness of the cross and the light of Easter Sunday. This is what Scripture seems to be doing. This is what 2 Peter is mostly about (Advent too for my mainline friends).
Christian Wiman has written a book chronicling his journey through pain and sickness . . . and faith. Fighting a rare cancer, he ends up being opened to God and all things related to humanity because of his suffering, not in spite of his suffering. More of a poet than a theologian (refreshing actually!), Wiman’s book goes to the edges of faith, asking about God’s goodness and presence in light of daily suffering. How can you be honest about God, your own life, and the world in light of death? After all, death is the mother of beauty (says the poet, Wallace Stevens). A leader in our church community gave me this book, and it is hauntingly brilliant.
Some highlight moments in the book.
“Sorrow is so woven through us, so much a part of our souls, or at least any understanding of our souls that we are able to attain, that every experience is dyed with its color. This is why, even in moments of joy, part of that joy is the seams of ore that are our sorrow. They burn darkly and beautifully in the midst of joy, and they make joy the complete experience that it is. But they still burn.” (19)
“God doesn’t give a gift without giving an obligation to use it. How one uses it, though–that’s where things get complicated.” (42)
“I’m not a Christian because of the resurrection . . . I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? . . . The point is that he felt human destitution to its absolute degree; the point is that God is with us, not beyond us . . . I am a Christian because I understand that moment of Christ’s passion to have meaning in my own life, and what it means is the absolute solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion. I’m not suggesting that ministering angels are going to come down and comfort you as you die. I’m suggesting that Christ’s suffering shatters the iron walls around individual human suffering, that Christ’s compassion makes extreme human compassion–to the point of death, even–possible. Human love can reach right into death, then, but not if it is merely human love.” (155)
“So much of faith has little to do with belief, and so much to do with acceptance. Acceptance of all the gifts that God, even in the midst of death, grants us. Acceptance of the fact that we are, as Paul Tillich says, accepted. Acceptance of grace.” (178)
Dr. Amir Arain is a good friend of mine. We’ve worked together on several projects during the four years I’ve lived in Nashville, Tenn.
Amir is a top neurologist at Vanderbilt Medical Center and a leading professor at Vanderbilt University. He also happens to be the spokesman on matters of faith and culture for the Nashville Islamic Center.
While Amir is from Pakistan, he became a U.S. citizen. He is dedicated to his adopted country and is as devout to his faith and family as I am to mine. The same is true of my immediate neighbors: Baha, Nima, Arin and Alan Hassan.
In Dearborn, Mich. — just 20 minutes from where I grew up — U.S. citizens make up the single largest concentration of Arabs in the world outside of the Middle East. These Muslim leaders are doctors, teachers, military servants and spiritual directors. They are part of the fabric of our nation.
I immediately thought of my Muslim neighbors — Amir, the Hassan family and the people of Dearborn — when the Islamic religious affiliation of the two brothers accused of bombing the Boston Marathon emerged.
We can’t make sense of the horrific and despicable actions allegedly carried out by brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. But neither should we conclude that most Muslims are hateful, violent and vengeful people.
Let me be clear: The Wahhabi segments of Islam and other militant groups committed to terrorism, violence and radical jihad are a major problem.
As Eboo Patel, an American Muslim and founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, notes, “The most successful youth group in the world are al Qaeda, and they are successful because they target extremely poor teenage boys with a message of purpose, a definable enemy, a place to live and food for their stomach.”
I believe that radical Islam is intolerable, just as I believe that anyone who professes faith and resorts to violence destroys the essence of that faith.
Today, Muslims and Christians make up nearly half the world’s total population. Eighty percent of Muslims around the world do not live in the Middle East and do not speak Arabic. Islam is as diverse a religion as we have on Planet Earth.
Consider this for a moment: There’s a profound connection between Jews and Samaritans of the first century and Christians and Muslims of the 21st century. Jesus consistently spoke, taught and embodied a way for Jews to see, engage and share life with Samaritans. It’s all over the gospels.
In the U.S., political and religious leaders are divided on their approach to Islam. Some tell Christians to fear Muslims, to not trust “them” because “those people” only want to kill, harm and destroy Christianity and Western Civilization.
Others insist that all religions — including Christianity and Islam — are the same, that we are all “traveling the same mountain, taking different paths.”
Frankly, neither view is helpful. We’ve tried both options for the last half-century, and they are not working.
Fear and division only make things worse. At the same time, Judaism, Islam and Christianity are not the same. Pretending as if they are doesn’t help matters. The Quran, the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament are very different texts.
Jesus teaches that we are to love our enemies; we are to engage with those the world deems “other” even if that makes us uncomfortable.
Too often we interpret Luke 10:25-37 — the Good Samaritan parable — merely to mean that we should change the tire of someone stranded on the side of the road.
Recently, while walking the sacred steps of the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero in Manhattan, I felt my spirit drawn back to St. Paul’s Chapel, immediately across the street from the site of one of the greatest human disasters in U.S. history.
The chapel is a wonderful example of healing, care, courage and love — all willing to suffer for the sake of others.
While praying in the cemetery of St. Paul’s, my mind went back to the story of the Merciful Samaritan Story in Luke’s gospel. How difficult that story must have been for Jews to hear as Jesus challenged them in how they saw their hated enemies, the Samaritans. How challenging it must have been to go along with the notion that Samaritans were capable of honor, courage and integrity.
I don’t call Amir Arain my brother in the faith, but that doesn’t make him any less my neighbor. According to Jesus, everyone is a neighbor, and there’s no one who’s not my neighbor.
Yes, I disagree with Amir on the precise meaning of Jesus’ life. Because of this — not in spite of — I believe that the real test of my disagreement with Amir is in the depth of my commitment to love Amir as Jesus has loved both of us.
It’s easy for me to love my brothers and sisters in the faith. Jesus wants to know if I know how to love my neighbors.
Jesus says, at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, that those who seek peace in a violent world are the ones whom God deems sons and daughters.
This is really hard teaching. I pray that God will give us ears to hear.
JOSH GRAVES, minister for the Otter Creek Church of Christ in Nashville, Tenn., is the author of “Tearing Down the Walls: a Guide for Muslims and Christians in North America.“ His doctoral studies focused on the relationship between Christianity and Islam in the U.S. He also authored “The Feast” and “Heaven on Earth.” He blogs atjoshuagraves.com . Follow him on Twitter at @joshgraves.
I have waited several weeks to write the following. Partly because I needed time to clarify my own experiences and feelings. But also because I know that death (specifically, suicide) touches all of our lives in a variety of ways. I am writing this in the most humble and sincere I tone I know possible.
A few weeks ago the CDC issued a summary of a report that made a crazy claim: More people in the United States died as a result of suicide than died as the result of car accidents. As I type this, I even have a hard time believing it. But it’s true. Multiple sources and agencies confirm.
When I read this statistic, I thought of a few people. I tend to think in terms of images and faces.
I thought of a friend in middle school who died as a result of a gunshot wound only to learn later it wasn’t an accident, it was suicide. I remembered Virginia Woolf--arguably one of the greatest literary minds in Western literature. At the age of 59, while writing a book with the haunting title Between the Acts, she decided the pain and deep sadness, was simply too much to bear. She wrote to her husband (the last letter or thing she ever wrote), “If anyone could have saved me, it would have been you.” She thanked him for their years of marital bliss and happiness. She put on a coat, filled it with rocks, and drowned herself in the River Ouse. Her body was not discovered for 3 weeks.
I also thought of David Foster Wallace when I read that CDC report. I thought of this brilliant speech he gave at Kenyon College (OH) later published as the pithy but provocative book, This is Water. If you are short on time, watch from the 5:50 mark to the 9:50 mark. Warning he uses a few cuss words.
Ultimately, Wallace couldn’t stand up under the weight and vision of this speech. In 2008, three years after this speech, he hung himself on the back porch of his own house. “Freedom means day by day, choice by choice, dying for others. That’s real freedom.” One of the greatest philosophical minds of the 21st century . . . no longer.
But ultimately, the story that gets the final word with me is the story of friendship in the Gospel of John. The second half of John possesses some of the richest teaching on what it means to truly be friends; to be in community. A true friend, according to Jesus, is one who is willing to lay down their life for the sake of another (Jn. 15:13).
Credibility through death and sacrifice.
In the John narrative, there are two true cowards in the entire gospel: Judas and Peter. There are hucksters and power-brokers and sinners and hypocrites and timid and courageous and dumb characters . . . but only two are cowards. By the way, they also happen to be the most prone to violence (Judas wants to incite it, Peter chops off the ear). There’s a fascinating thread in the gospels between fear, cowardice, and violence. Jesus, the truly brave character in the story, looks violence in the face, not flinching, because he understands that there is a strength stronger than violence and death.
In John’s account, Jesus predicts Judas and Peter’s cowardice in the form of betrayal in chapter 13. While predicting Judas’s betrayal, it’s Peter, of course, who’s enraged. Just a few verses later, Jesus turns things around and tells Peter he’s no better. Later in the John Story, Peter will deny and betray Jesus multiple times. During one such denial, Peter and Jesus’s eyes lock. We have no idea what that looked like but we can’t skip over it. In some of Bono’s writing for instance, I sense him wrestling with his own cowardice. At times, he’s Judas, at other times, he is Peter.
We know (via Matthew and Luke) that Judas could not bear the shame of what he had done to Jesus. Judas takes his own life. Whether or not Judas was disappointed in Jesus (hence the betrayal and suicide) or thought that by speeding up the messianic coronation, he was “doing Jesus a favor” only to realize he’d backed the wrong horse . . . these are matters of historical and psychological debate that go beyond the narrative’s interest.
What we do KNOW, for certain, is that Jesus has two friends who are cowards. He dies for them anyway. After his resurrection, Jesus shows the most interest and the most passion for Peter. I’m convinced that Jn. 21 is centrally focused on Jesus dealing with, not Peter’s guilt (though there was plenty of that), but the intense shame that had caused Judas to kill himself and probably pushed Peter to the brink of similar consideration. Jesus’ last conversation with Peter was one of liberation from shame. I think, partly, Jesus was motivated to make sure that Peter didn’t allow his own disappointment, shame, regret paralyze him the way Judas could not resist. He didn’t want to see another friend go the way of suicide. Jesus still had big plans for Peter (Judas too perhaps). He had to fight for Peter’s future and view of self.
I don’t recall the details, but one of the more moving contemporary pieces of midrash I’ve read, deals with Judas’ mother and Mary (Jesus’s mother) talking in heaven about their pain and wounds from the deaths of their sons.
I think Jesus saw Peter post-Resurrection and made a decision he was not going to let Peter’s last chapter be titled, “Coward.” Jesus had more chapters to write in Peter’s life.
Some practical suggestions.
1. The local church has to deal with mental illness in a robust fashion. Because of the stigma attached to panic-attacks, depression, anxiety, postpartum, etc. the church sometimes only makes the problem worse. We have to be ready to aggressively and lovingly walk with those in the pit. This is not about getting people to “think right” or “just make choices”…it’s far more complicated.
2. Suicide is not the last unforgivable sin. It’s really bad theology. So, please stop it. Death doesn’t get the last word. God does. It’s God’s story. Debating this simply distracts us from the church’s call to enter into people’s darkness before they get to a point where ending life seems like the only real, viable option.
3. The shame brought upon families of suicide victims is one of the largest burdens anyone or any group can bear. No one (unless you’ve gone through it) understands. Save religious cliche, shallow theology, and hallmark sentimentality for someone else. It is not helpful in any way.
4. The tragedy of suicide is that it takes the pen away from the author’s hand. Instead of living as characters in a sacred story, we take the author’s role and make it our own. That God allows us to do this shows God’s ultimate respect for the mutuality of the divine and the created.
5. If you or someone you are close to is truly struggling, really in the deep dark abyss, please, by God, please reach out to a pastor, a friend, a counselor, a spouse. Reach out to someone. And if you are that someone, listen, pray, err on the side of action and compassion. Reject secrecy and shame. Be a safe place. But be a place for transformation and healing.
Kara: There are 5 things I really don’t like. 1. Surprises. 2. Public attention. 3. Spending large amounts of money in a short period of time. 4. Being away from our boys. 5. Spontaneous travel with little time for prep and packing.
Me: But you are glad I did it right?
Kara: I’m thinking about it. I’ll let you know.
Context: On May 19th I threw a big surprise party for Kara (with the help of some really loyal and creative friends) for her 30th birthday. The food was stellar, the band was killer, the turn-out was lovely, the weather was perfect. I also took Kara to New York City immediately following (her first ever visit to my favorite city in the world) for a few days of shopping, Broadway, and city-immersion.
I’m not posting this for you to think “Wow…he did a great thing for Kara.” In fact it is the opposite. How is it that I’ve known Kara since 2001 and this is the first real, truly thought out surprise of our relationship? Last year, I forgot our anniversary. There it is. It’s public. We got to the end of the night, she handed me a beautiful card, with a piercing note, and I knew, in that moment, I had blown it. I had to step up my game. Period. I didn’t need grace in that moment. I needed a burning word (BTW-I got neither from Kara. I got the worst option: total silence).
I think that the fact/experience of the resurrection says something about God we don’t like to consider: God loves to surprise us. Be careful about “nailing down God” . . . the first time we nailed him down, he got away (Barbara Brown Taylor).
One of the most powerful ways to show others you love them is to surprise them. With a call, a note, a card, a visit . . . something that lets them see how you’ve meticulously considered considered their plight and you might brighten life. Even people who don’t like surprises (i.e. Kara) will in time, pray God, appreciate the planning and love poured into the art of surprise.
Oh yeah…it also helps that Michael W. Smith (one of Kara’s favorite artists) sent her a personal birthday video message. I mean, believe that.
The story started in a ruptured garden. It will end with a wedding in the city to come, the New Jerusalem.
Once upon a time, there was a prince who was single and very eager to marry a lovely maiden for his future queen. Near his palace was a large city, and often he rode his carriage down to the city to take care of various chores for his father. One day, to reach a particular merchant, he had to go through a rather poor section. He happened to glance out of the window and right into the eyes of a beautiful maiden.
He had occasion on the next few days to return to the section of the city–drawn as he was by the eyes of the maiden. And more than that, he had the good fortune once or twice actually to meet this young girl. Soon he began to feel that he was in love with her. But now he had a problem. How should he proceed to procure her hand?
Of course, he could order her to the palace and there propose marriage. But even a prince would like to feel that the girl he marries wants to marry him. Or perhaps, somewhat more graciously, he could arrive at her door in his most resplendent uniform and, with a bow, ask her hand. But even a prince wants to marry for love.
Again, he could masquerade as a peasant and try to gain her interest. After he proposed, he could pull off his ‘mask.’ Still, the masquerade would be ‘phony.’ He really could not manage it.
Finally a real solution presented itself to his mind. He would give up his kingly role and move into her neighborhood. There he would take up work as, say, a carpenter. During his work in the day and during his time off in the evening, he would get acquainted with the people, begin to share their interests and concerns, begin to talk their language. And in due time, should fortune be with him, he would make her acquaintance in a natural way. And should she come to love him, as he had already come to love her, then he would ask for her hand.
The story started in a ruptured garden. It will end with a wedding in the city to come, the New Jerusalem. The King will return. All will be as it was meant to be. All will be well. All will be good. We missed Jesus’ first coming, we (none of us) will not miss his second coming.