Sunday, April 17, 2011

Let's get dirty...

Recently, I went to the Faith & Culture Writing Conference. Art was the focus, and specifically writing as an art form in our culture and faith. Have you ever listened to someone share only to feel as if he/she was putting words to your own heart? At one point, my excitement got so real, I bit my lip fearing I'd shout "Amen!" from the back of the room where I sat nodding my head up and down in agreement like a bobble-head doll. I also blinked back tears as my spirit resonated with the speaker's words.

Dr. Brad Harper, a confessed art lover, and professor at Multnomah University, talked about art in our time. He shared a little American history explaining how the 20th Century saw the start of doubt pertaining to the Bible, its validity and Christianity. America began moving towards rationalism which began to be reflected in our art, which in turn reflected our culture. And the conservative Christian's response was to separate from the mainstream and create its own sub-culture. We felt art was "worldly" and therefore; if we were good Christians, we must have nothing to do with film, music, theater, and other forms of art.

In the 50's, my mom and my parents-in-law experienced this as they grew up in the Evangelical church where rock music, dancing, and movies were all forbidden. Ungodly activities, don't ya know! Later our sub-culture created its own music and art. We ended up with Christian music, Christian art, Christian movies further extricating us from the secular culture. Sadly, this created an "us and them" mentality. And in so doing "we lost the awareness of the image of God in ALL people whether or not they follow Jesus", said Harper. We then took ideas and sounds that were popular in the secular culture and tweaked them a little, so they could be called "Christian". Dr Harper called this "baptizing the secular". From there we created cliché's and tongue in cheek bumper stickers, Christian trinkets and memorabilia, all of which trivialize Jesus, in Harper's opinion. Christian merchandise sold for profit in which Jesus is marketed. Is the world interested in a marketed trivial Jesus?

And out of this disconnect came idealistic Christian art void of suffering. And escapist theology grew strong. We American Christians don't believe in suffering, at least not here in America. This "Christian nation" where we have been blessed by God, this land of plenty, where we have special rights especially as American Christians could not and should not suffer. God will allow us to escape if we follow His plan. If we have enough faith. If we just follow the godly Biblical formula. And this was mirrored in our Christian art, music and film. Then Harper talked about the nostalgia we see in our sub-culture today for the past. The desire to go back to that wonderful time when prayer and the Bible were in the public school system. Back to the 50's or earlier. His point: yes, that time might have been better, but only if you were a white American!

I once walked in step with this idealist, escapist belief system and in fact, raised my children for years with this God in a box agenda. I homeschooled my children keeping them from the world teaching them from "godly" textbooks. We watched only moral movies. We listened exclusively to Christian music by Christian artists. If we looked at pictures of the great works of art like Michelangelo's David, it was after I had strategically placed a sticky note over indecent body parts. We separated ourselves from the non-Christian world which meant our neighbors, not realizing God was there too. Somehow, as I read to my children from the Bible each morning, I didn't grasp how Jesus surrounded himself in the culture of his day. He hung out with the marginalized, he ministered to the lowly and he grew angry with the religious. You could say, Jesus got dirty. And why did I follow after this system? I think it was out of fear, out of a desire to protect, and wanting to keep my babies safe, making sure they never got dirty.

Please do not get the idea that I am bashing homeschooling or suggesting we not monitor what our children read and view. Homeschooling is a good form of educating a child, however be careful not to insulate them from their own culture. Certainly the age of the child is a factor, but most importantly, there is balance. One of my daughters commented on this when she expressed a real disconnect from her peers after entering college. As the topic moved to TV shows and commercials, she was left out of the discussions. It wasn't about not "fitting in", it was about her not being able to engage. Yes, TV shows and commercials on the outset seem non-important, but they reflect our culture and thus she was unable to connect in that culture. And when I speak of balance, I recall a conversation with a young Christian woman who shared with me, as we discussed great literature, how she wouldn't read The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne because it was about adultery and an illegitimate child. When I reminded her adultery and illegitimate children are a reality of our world, she said she knew, but didn't want to read about it because it wasn't good. I almost warned her not to read the Bible either, but I bit my tongue. In my opinion, she is trying to avoid the suffering reality of our world, not to mention missing out on a great piece of literature. Jesus on the other hand, was immersed in his suffering culture thus allowing him to speak into his society. He broke the rules. He got dirty.

I first started struggling with this Christian sub-culture and my faith when I was told my son had cancer. Getting through treatment was extremely difficult and survivorship continues to be challenging. I noticed my escapist theology just didn't fit my life anymore. As childhood cancer impacted all my children and even my marriage the "godly formulas" no longer worked. And as the years evolved and my emotions began gradually healing and my spirituality grew, I discovered Jesus, the real non-trivialized, non-marketed Jesus. He was there all along deep in the depths of my suffering. He wept with me. He gave no trite comments. He got dirty as he walked along side me. He understood, above all others; what suffering means. Dr. Harper's speech seemed to connect all the dots for me. He painted the picture of my journey. And that is why his words brought tears to my eyes.

My challenge to myself and encouragement to you: Let's engage the world. Let's live in it and create art that reflects the pain and suffering we see around us, if only we dare open our eyes. As the saying goes, "Let's be real!"

My second daughter has battled depression. Another impact of childhood cancer born out of watching her little brother suffer and other children with cancer die. She's an art major and has just completed her senior art project which was an art performance titled: "Partial Effects of a Lowercase c" . We were privileged to watch her perform it. It portrayed depression as she has experienced it. An art performance for a senior art project had never before been done in the history of her Christian liberal arts school's art program. Depression can be a taboo subject in the conservative Christian sub-culture. After all, it's implied, Christians should never feel depressed. I am proud of my daughter bravely exposing hidden pain and engaging the world through her art. She's getting dirty.

Do not be afraid to suffer for you will suffer. And when you do you will find Jesus but only if you unwrap the bonds of fear of the world entangled around your heart. As Dr. Harper so beautifully said, "Jesus has called us to engage the world not escape it."

So let's get dirty!

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