Why I Gave Up the Violin

I used to get stuck in doors when I played Call of Duty.  Those controllers were the death of me hundreds and hundreds of times, and when it wasn’t that I was getting lost on the maps, even the small ones.  I don’t get stuck in doors anymore, but I’ve yet to master the game.  I never will.

I simply don’t have the time.

It’s unfortunate for impatient souls like me, but mastery of anything–including fake combat with a plastic controller–takes… time.  Lots of it.  That’s why I quit playing the violin.

I began playing the violin when I was eleven after I won a violin in an auction.  I’d always wanted to play, and my chance finally came.  I loved it.  But it’s so dang hard to play, and after years of lessons I was no master.  I was tired of being embarrassed by my lack of skill.  I was an adult now.  I had a full time job, little time to practise, and no money for lessons (and no one in my apartment block wanted to listen to me screech).  Writing had become my passion.  So I played one last recital, and I haven’t even opened the case since.

That’s also why I don’t play hockey, or paint, or draw anymore.  I hate being bad, and I’ve no time to be good.

But I can’t always quit things I’m bad at, can I?  Case in point: singing in the church choir.

Swearing at the Choir

It doesn’t sound difficult.  You show up and sing.  But as singers, we are considered leaders and we are held to a high standard in how we live and relate to Jesus.  This accountability is excellent.  But I’ve come face to face with reality in the past few days.  I’m a the good Christian nice girl. I’m kind of a bitch. I rant. I swear.  I go into seething fits about inconsequential details, and offences, and misunderstandings.  I critique others mercilessly while indulging myself. I’m addicted to silly things like YouTube and chips.

I’ve been flabbergasted by my inability to connect to, and like the music I sing.  Two ladies were cooing about how much they liked the new Christmas songs, and inside I’m like ‘really? I think they’re lame.’  This should all be so secondary, because the music is hardly the point.  The point is to worship Jesus through song, and by giving of my time and energy and voice so that others can meet with God.

My leaders have told me is that the frustration I bear owes to the fact that I have a lot of personal and spiritual growing to do.  I know they’re right, and I’m depressed about it.  I want to be fixed.  Now.

And that’s impossible.

A Summer of Masochism

While in prayer yesterday, God reminded me of how I learned to run.  I began Couch to 5K on June 17th, ran my first 5K race on August 19th, and ran 10K on November 1st.  This would have been impossible without 1) a program 2) time 3) lacing up and never missing a workout.  Most of it was great, but there were horrible things mingled in–days when I almost puked from heat an exertion, speed intervals in downpours, black and blue toenails, 5Ks I ran while sick with burning lungs and muscles (probably shouldn’t have done that).  Basically, I was never without pain for the entire summer.

Does that sound like torture?  Well, it sort of was.  But here I am a runner, and I’m so glad.

So I sensed that he was telling me not to be discouraged because I couldn’t be strong that very instant. I need time, training, and discipline.  It’s amazing what a year can do.  But what about two?

I have big plans for next year.  I’ll run my first 10K races, and I plan to run my first half-marathon at the end of the summer.  But there’s a chance that I’m thinking too small entirely, and what I’ll end up accomplishing is a lot bigger than that.  Effort, compounded, can do surprising things over time.

If you’re willing to give it.

Mohammed Ali said, “I hated every minute of training, but I said ‘Don’t quit.  Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.'”

 

 

Separating the Pulpit from the Novelist’s Pen

The Misunderstood Power of Christian Art, Part 2.

Christians are obsessed with truth, and rightfully so.  We bear our statements of faith with pride.  We have the knowledge.  We have the proof.  But do we have the medium?

Tim Downs said:

“In the last forty years both the quantity and quality of conservative Christian scholarship have exploded.  Evangelicals today are able to marshal more impressive, scholarly information on behalf of our position than ever before.  We now have, by anyone’s standards, world-class philosophers, theologians, and scientists on our side.  It’s no exaggeration to say that evangelical Christians have experienced a literal renaissance in our science.

Unfortunately, there has been no corresponding renaissance in our art.  We have more to say to our culture than ever before, and less ability to say it in a persuasive and compelling way.  We are enamoured with our content and cannot understand why the world isn’t fascinated with our latest proofs and evidences.”

In a generation brainwashed by film, television and music, carried along by the jet stream of social media, the Christian art industry has yet to catch up.  Music and film has increased in quantity and quality, yet the mainstream hears about it only if it is controversial.

We shove our artists to the front, put the Bible in their hands, and say “Preach!”  But what if a sermon isn’t what we need?

Preaching: The Only Messenger?

There is a point in many Christian novels where the main character reaches his lowest point.  They have expended their resources.  Their mission or relationship has failed.

Cue the entry of a wise friend who opens the Bible, quotes verses, and shows them what they need is a Saviour.  And you just know that when the protagonist falls to his knees in prayer, victory is around the corner.

Or say a movie is made about a farmer.  He’s not a Christian, and this is readily demonstrated by his workaholicism and regular drinking binges.  One summer, the corn crop he is counting on is ravaged by a hail storm.  The farmer throws everything into replanting while there is still time.  But this is thwarted by persistent rain.  His financial future is bleak, but worse, his wife leaves him because of his drunkenness.

If you have seen three or four Christian movies, you can predict the end.  The farmer will hit bottom, and while wandering in a hammered state, ready to end his life, a Christian will rescue him and clean him up.  The Christian will tell him that he needs Jesus, and the farmer will fall to his knees.

His crop will be saved, and his wife will return.  He may, in fact, become an evangelist.

Rarely does a movie or novel break this mould.

The Power of the Covert

Every novelist knows the adage “show, don’t tell.”  Telling, or explaining, is considered weak writing and rather insulting to the intelligence of the reader.  Sermonizing is precisely this: telling.

I saw a powerful example of ‘showing’ recently.

In the movie Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey plays Ron, a low-brow cowboy with HIV who begins smuggling illegal medication to treat AIDs.  His foil is Rayon a transgender man, now woman, who is dying of aids.  Rayon is played by Jared Leto, who is by all accounts, a heterosexual man.

The empathy and passion Leto put into the role is evident, even from the short clips I watched.  Rayon is no cardboard cut-out.  She is a feisty dreamer, but also a deeply hurting person who just wants love.  You can see it in her eyes.  Though I am uncomfortable with her lifestyle, I cannot look away.  I have to say, “this is a person, and I kind of like them.” (I cannot recommend that movie, by the way.  I decided against watching it because of graphic content).

At no point does an actor turn to the screen and say, “Accept this person!  You are a bigot if you do not accept this person!”  Neither do they say, “This is a good lifestyle!”  I accept Rayon because I cannot deny her personhood anymore.  I empathize.

Create empathy within the heart of the viewer, and you have won the greatest part of the battle.

Catch and Release

I also see that if the art is not used as a carrier for preaching, it is often used as bait.  For example, a prominent evangelist often uses free concerts with Christian rock bands to draw people to their crusades.  Likewise, Christian movies are often marketed as ‘witnessing tools’.  Does this work?  I don’t know.

But there is a level of dishonesty about it.  It says, “We are like you.  We like what you like.  Come, try our music,” and then slams the audience with an altar call.

In fact,  sermonizing such as the ‘basic movie and novel plot’, can also be inherently dishonest.  It wants the reader to believe so badly, that it makes ‘pie-crust’ promises, easily broken.  Will the farmer’s wife come back the day after he believes?  Probably not.  He may win her back after months of trying, with the wisdom and strength of God.  But faith isn’t the magic bullet we sell it as.

Let the Artists Be!

I feel like our preachers and theologians have convinced artists that their work is useless if not didactic.  Sort of a ‘why can’t you be like us?’  But if we believe in the priesthood of all believers, we must value the artist as much as the preacher and not force one to conform to the mould of the other.

Dorothy Sayers said:

When you find a man who is a Christian praising God by the excellence of his work – do not distract him and take him away from his proper vocation to address religious meetings and open church bazaars. Let him serve God in the way to which God has called him. If you take him away from that, he will exhaust himself in an alien technique and lose his capacity to do his dedicated work.

It is time to let artists be.  Let them do what only they can truly understand.  And when they have served in obedience to the work, and to God, the message within their art may be greater than any sermon you could insert.

Read Part 1: Defining Christian art, and the artist’s mandate, here.

 

 

 

 

 

The Misunderstood Power of Christian Art, Part 1

What makes art ‘Christian’?

I’ve talked about my disgust for the movie God’s Not Dead, and how I discarded Christian music.  After I released We are the Living, I had a couple of good conversations with people simply because it wasn’t a “Christian book”, or at least, I wasn’t sure their junior high kids should read it.

I feel the concept of Christian art has been misunderstood, and, as it is a subject I am passionate about, I thought it was time to discuss my philosophy of faith and art with you over the course of the next few posts.

In the field of imparting ideas, the piano and paintbrush are more powerful than the pulpit.  Not to put down preaching.  It is wonderful.  But art has power to cross boundaries that sermons cannot, and that is why it is important that we as Christians understand it.  A preface: while informed by Scripture and Christian artists and thinkers, this is my humble opinion.  No doubt it will evolve as I do.

Can Christian Art be Defined?

Art is loosely defined in the New Oxford American Dictionary as:

  • The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
  • Works produced by human creative skill and imagination.
  • Creative activity resulting in the production of paintings, drawings, or sculpture.

No explicit mention of film, literature or music is mentioned, but I expect there is little doubt that these are part of the arts.

But what is Christian art?  This is much more slippery–like a wet football, in fact.  Here is the definition I’m going to work with: Christian art is that which is produced by a Christian, in obedience to, and to the glory of God.

But what glorifies God?  That is where things become more difficult.

What is the Call of the Christian Artist?

Madeleine L’Engle said, “The artist must be obedient to the work, whether it be a symphony, a painting, or a story for a small child.  I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius, or something very small, comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am.  Enflesh me.'”  If God calls his child to art, the art becomes his or her duty.

But the manifestation of that art is their unique calling.  Some will be called to hip-hop, like my friend Malcolm.  Others will write speculative fiction, like me.  And some will write Amish romances (which I neither understand nor enjoy, but others love), some will do acrylic paintings, and some will dance.  Some will write to a strictly Christian audience, and some will write to a mainstream audience.  Each field needs Christians who are obedient to the works God has prepared in advance for them (Ephesians 2:10).

Art is the work of the artist, and as Dorothy Sayers said, “Work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or it should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God.”

My Philosophy of Christian Art

I believe Christian artist must be these three things:

  • Excellent.  The Christian must perform or create their art to the best of their ability.  Where they lack, they must practise, research, and submit to mentorship by more accomplished artists.  There is no half-heartedness here.  There is no ‘I won’t memorize my lines for the church play’.  There is no ‘I’m not getting paid’.  It is your best, or nothing.
  • Courageous.  When you are inspired to a work, the decision to do or not to do must be based on conviction and wisdom, not fear or selfish ambition.  I believe this applies, especially, to censorship.  Censorship is sometimes necessary, but it should not be because you are afraid to not conform, or because you want people to like you.  Rather, it is because you think you’ve transgressed beyond God’s laws, or good sense.  The truth is NOT always sweet to the ears.  Just because it is scary does not mean it is wrong.
  • Truthful.  Christian art cannot fall victim to denial, self-indulgent fantasy, or a lack of integrity.  This is not to say that it cannot be ‘fictional’.  I’ve often said that just because it’s fiction doesn’t mean it’s not true.  Simply, Christian art must not engage in deceit, nor try to make the receiver believe an untruth.

The Opportunity

The Apostle Paul said in Ephesians 5:1, “Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.  Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (ESV).  What an excellent description of our mandate as artists!

When we are obedient to the work, we produce what is good, right and true, and we expose darkness. This takes courage, for sometimes the darkness we expose resides within us, and we wrestle with our selfish desires as we create.  But out of this courage comes work that can probe where no scholarly literature or sermon can go.  That is the nature of art–to bypass the well-guarded gates of the mind, and go straight to the soul.

Which means that art can be very dangerous as well.

In the next post I will discuss why I departed from the genre of Christian fiction, and where Christian art may go awry.

Suggested Reading:

Dorothy Sayers, Why Work?  Read this excellent essay on the sacredness of work here.

Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water.  A rambling but inspiring account of her philosophy of Christian art.  I really enjoyed her perspective.

 

 

 

Poisoning Pigeons in the Park

Spring is here, Sah-puh-ring is here!

And in honour of spring, and my most detested bird, I give you this sadistic tune by Tom Lehrer.

I first heard this ditty performed by my beloved voice teacher at her own birthday party (all dressed up as an old lady) and it has been my song every since–whether performing it in front of an adjudicator in a festival, or singing it with an almost inebriated gusto in the halls at work.

One way to alarm your coworkers, I do assure thee.

I must add that if you had pigeons living on your balcony (and dropping frequent payloads there) you would detest them as well–but, my animal-loving friends, I would never ACTUALLY do the things in the song.  Not to worry.

Enjoy.  I hope this adds a smile to your spring day.

Why I Left Christian Music

I stopped listening to Christian music about the time we got high-speed Internet in our house. I was probably sixteen. I’d never been on YouTube before.

I had a problem with ‘worship music’ since my early teens, about when I entered my angsty stage (from which I never emerged, by the way). I’d be at a youth-retreat. The band would be playing their heart out, and all around me people would be raising their hands and crying, and I’d be standing there going “if you repeat the chorus one more time, I swear I’ll kill someone.”

Angsty, remember.

If the band was good, all I wanted was to be up there playing in the band. If the band was bad, I’d stare at the ground, embarrassed for them. By the fifth round of the chorus I’d refuse to sing, and say “God, I’m sure you get the point by now.” And then I’d feel guilty.

I was sure something was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I feel anything? I loved Jesus. I wanted to follow him. I wanted to worship. Why couldn’t get all into it like everyone else?

I enjoyed Christian rock, but at the time there was no Christian rock station in my area, so I was limited to the few CD’s I bought. The Christian radio station played mostly pop and Chris Tomlin and all this local stuff that sounded like it was produced in a basement.

Haunted by my lack of connection to the words, annoyed by the sound, I turned to mainstream music.

What kind? All kinds. I’ve never pinned myself to a genre. But it sure was angst-ridden. Sad songs about lost love, struggle, depression, longing.

Was it the darkness that drew me to those songs? It isn’t that you can’t find darkness in Christian music, particularly Christian rock, but my local station (the one that played Chris Tomlin and pop music) sure was bright and shiny. I didn’t do bright and shiny. If you look at my writing from those days–actually, if you look at any of the novels I’ve written–you’ll see that I cover a lot of dark themes and I’m really not sure why. But as music often acts as the inspiration and the soundtrack for my writing, melancholy melodies are what I needed to come through my ear buds.

And then I went through a ‘hipster music’ stage—for my older friends, that means Mumford and Sons, Bon Iver, the Lumineers, and then as many bands that no one has heard of as possible. Make it weird, raw and jangly… yes, jangly.

These days my playlist is a bit more up-tempo, more hopeful. My anthem this week has been “Sprawl II: Mountains Beyond Mountains” by Arcade Fire. “They heard me singing and they told me to stop. Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock. These days I feel my life, it has no purpose. But late at night these feelings swim to the surface.”

To me it signifies the struggles against the mundane. I aspire to so much, but most people around me would only drag me down if I listen to them. Gosh, I got a lump in my throat just now. My ‘romantic battle’ to follow my dreams of being a writer and just plain an excellent person is one of the most important things in my life—and, I believe, part of God’s purpose for me.

I’ve yet to find the Christian equivalent to bands like Arcade Fire, Broken Bells, Passenger and Muse. I recently found a Christian ‘Mumford and Sons’ lookalike, but their songs were so saccharine that I exited iTunes without purchasing.

But lately I’ve made a return to Christian music.

It began when I joined a group of young women who meet to pray, study and worship together. The group leader would always play worship music, and I would often sit there (pretending to pray silently) annoyed as heck with the music. I mean, what did they do? Put all the Christian clichés in a bowl, mix it up and flop it on the page?

But one day, she played an album by Christy Nockels—“Into the Glorious”. Her beautiful voice, the piano driven sound and the beautiful lyrics got to me. I bought a couple songs and began listening to them when I was down or in a funk, and they would remind me of the goodness of God.

I now have a playlist—a short playlist—of ‘songs of worship’, which I will play during my devotional times, or when I need to be reminded of God’s truth.

I also have a mind full of hymns that I learned as a child, and I love to belt them out when alone in my process room at work. The profundity of the poetry and beautiful melodies make them mini-sermons for my soul. I still find singing in church a bit awkward, and being an anal writer, I’m driven wild by the prevalence of pronoun confusion, tense-jumping, and other literary weirdness but… we’ll let that pass. I seem to be growing out of it—a little.

It’s not sinful to enjoy music made by non-Christians. We are all endowed with a certain measure of common grace, and many artists use it to produce wonderful music. I doubt that the list of Christian music I own will ever be longer than the mainstream, but I’m opening myself up to finding it again. They both have their place.

In other words, no need to play therapist to me. I’ll be fine. 🙂

But, having said that, if you know of a band I’d like, please let me know! Comment, or share a YouTube link so I can take a listen. And I always appreciate when you guys share articles on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for your help.

Note: The term “Christian music” means different things to different people. I’ve defined it as music produced by a band that specifically claims to be Christian and/or is associated with a Christian music label, as this is what I think of when I think “Christian music”. If I were to write out a definition of ‘Christian Music’, I would probably call it ‘music produced by Christians for the glory of God, regardless of what genre it belongs to.’

Don’t be Chicken, Said the Mouse

Image from the cover illustration by Stephen Lavis

“‘Use?’ replied Reepicheep. ‘Use, Captain? If by use you mean filing our bellies or our purses, I confess it will be no use at all. So far as I know we did not set sail to look for things useful but to seek honour and adventure. And here is as great an adventure as ever I heard of, and here, if we turn back, no little impeachment of all our honours'” (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis).

If you don’t know your Narnia, Reepicheep is a mouse–a walking, talking, sword-fighting mouse. He is one of the most noble, courageous, and brash characters of the series all while being the smallest. And here he calls his shipmates to be brave.

Where are they? They are sitting at the edge of the Darkness. “For a few feet in front of their bows they could see the swell of the bright greenish-blue water. Beyond that, they could see the water looking pale and grey as it would look late in the evening. But beyond that, utter blackness.”

Everyone says ‘stay back,’ but Reepicheep says, “I hope it will never be told in Narnia that a company of noble and royal persons in the flower of their age turned tail because they were afraid of the dark.”

Ouch, Reep.

This was ‘my quote’ in the yearbook when I graduated from college. I’ve repurposed it for my use as a call to courage and honour when I am tempted to turn tail. Oh, maybe it would be easier to turn back. Oh, maybe there’s no ‘use’ in it. But if I turn back, that mars my honour.

Not that I’ve done crazy stuff like sailing into a darkness on the water. But, I’ve done things like singing competitively in festivals… which may be just as scary. I couldn’t say no to my teacher just because i was scared, so I had to say yes, and sing. And I loved it–shaking knees and all.

I wonder what else I would have done if I hadn’t been ‘afraid of the dark?’

What about you? What have you done, though you were scared, that paid off in the end?