June 23, 2009

A Poor Reflection

I got the latest issue of LeTourneau's in-house news magazine in the mail yesterday, and found it fuller than usual of interesting tidbits. Among those was a blurb that mentioned that Dr. Jarstfer, who is a biology professor and serves as the dean of both Arts (which includes both departments from which I earned my degree) and Sciences, had testified before the Texas State Board of Education and recommended that critical thinking be encouraged among high school students, specifically by continuing to require that science teachers include information about weaknesses in the theory of evolution.

The single paragraph did not, of course, mention that the board ultimately voted to drop this requirement a few days later, but it did note that Jarstfer was quoted in a "Christianity Today" article about the "controversy." That blurb, and the article it cites (which can be found here), raised all sorts of conflicting thoughts and emotions for me which I shall attempt to work through here. And, yes, the title is a pun.

Of course, for starters I am always surprised whenever I see LeTourneau mentioned in any sort of larger state or national context. I am still getting used to attending a university that is widely-recognized by name, and which regularly crops up in all sorts of places (including the above article, where I was not at all surprised to find it). I hope that's not taken as a knock on LeTourneau, but let's face it . . . my undergraduate alma mater is a little fish in a big ocean.

It's probably that fact more than any other that elicited any response at all from me in regards to this issue. When an institution that I still feel so intimately connected to garners a little attention, and when that attention is so rare, I am naturally interested in the sort of attention it is getting. In this case, I have to say I'm distressed, and I feel that Dr. Jarstfer's stand reflects poorly on the university and its academic chops (which is the sort of reflection it can ill-afford). However, I remain somewhat conflicted about whether I am correct in feeling this way.

My first impulse just upon reading the blurb from LeTourneau was one of annoyance. It seemed to me that Jarstfer was attempting to "strike a blow for Creationism" (and whatever the reality, I remain convinced that the piece was crafted to give that impression). However, after skimming the "Christianity Today" article, I vascillated a bit and began to charitably consider that perhaps Dr. Jarstfer really is willing to give evolutionary theory a fair hearing and was just advocating a "good science" which is willing to question everything. Upon closer reading, not only of the article but of the several links that it includes, I have to return to my previous opinion.

This isn't about good science (although I don't know whether Jarstfer recognizes that); it's about scoring political and religious points in an increasingly destructive debate. And, in this case specifically, I'd say it's about very publicly scoring points with the university's financial base while members of the department with less acceptable views wisely keep their heads down.

Now, I can't say with any certainty precisely what Dr. Jarstfer's opinions on evolution are, or how he arrived at them, but at the very least he is guilty of keeping bad company. As the article notes, Jarstfer has signed the famous "scientific dissent from Darwinism" document which is associated with the infamous Discovery Institute. The purpose of this document is (and here I am grossly mischaracterizing its actual purpose) to create the illusion that there is significant and genuine scientific dissent to the theory of evolution. That is probably a terribly unfair accusation to make, and if I were one of the signers, I would be outraged at . . . myself. Here's why I made it:

The list of scientists that have signed off on this dissent are from all over the world. That is, most of them are from the United States, but in terms of representation, this gives the appearance of being a global list of scientists who are opposed to evolution. There are somewhere in the general neighborhood of 750 names on the list, including 2 from LeTourneau (Jarstfer and my former chemistry professor, who just retired after 40 years of teaching) and 5 from Baylor (one of whom, incidentally, teaches my Sunday school class . . . I have a great deal of respect for the guy, lest it be thought that I am displaying an unthinking bias here).

Meanwhile, the CT article links to another list. This is a list of Texan scientists (that is, scientists who are living and working in the state) who are opposed to what they (in my opinion rightly) view as a "teach the weaknesses" red herring. Part of their statement reads, "Evolution is an easily observable phenomenon and has been documented beyond any reasonable doubt." There are, as I say, only Texas scientists on this list. And it contains 1550 names, including 41 from Baylor.

Of further interest to me: There are no names from LeTourneau on the list, although I happen to know that some of the science faculty there hold opinions which would align them with this statement. I have to wonder, did they willingly choose not to sign, or do they just know better given the institution they work for? After all, LeTourneau is a Christian technical school, and there are quite a few faculty members who meet the qualifications required to sign the dissent, and yet there are only two that chose to do so.

This is pretty much pure speculation on my part, but is it possible that Jarstfer, and LeTourneau, aren't quite as favorable towards asking questions and thinking critically as they say? Feel free to note here the cheap tactic of asking a very leading question. I'm not trying to be disingenuous or slyly give the impression that this is definitely going on. I'll just conclude with option #3, presented by at the end of the CT article by Jim Nichols, biology chair and Abilene Christian. He summarizes my own position on the matter rather nicely, and that makes him the logical place to end this:

"[Petitions] too often oversimplify causes. I suspect [the curriculum debate] is really more of a political/religious showcase than something that will really affect public education. I and many others live relatively comfortably in both camps and tire from attacks from both sides. With all the real problems in the world, this is a serious waste of energy to keep beating on this topic."

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June 20, 2009


Garrison Keillor once remarked: "If you can't go to church and, for at least a moment, be given transcendence; if you can't go to church and pass briefly from this life into the next; then I can't see why anyone should go. Just a brief moment of transcendence causes you to come out of church a changed person." Commenting on this observation, Ken Gire writes, "I have experienced what Garrison Keillor described more in movie theaters than I have in churches. Why? I can't say for sure . . . movies don't always tell the truth, don't always enlighten, don't always inspire. What they do on a fairly consistent basis is give you an experience of transcendence. They let you lose yourself in somebody else's story." What many churches have forgotten and preachers ignore, the movie theater recognizes: "story reigns supreme."

-Robert K. Johnston, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue

I think there's a lot of truth packed into this paragraph, although there is also a great deal left unsaid that would need to be unpacked. I guess the reason it resonates with me is that I'm just not sure what the Church is peddling sometimes. I don't think the Church is very aware, either. Whatever it is, though, it's something I'm often not interested in.

Not only does the Church not have the market cornered on truth, all too frequently I find that it's not even one of the best sources of truth. The Church has been hijacked by people who are far less interested in truth or faith or even love than they are in rigidly defining a very dubious worldview, manufacturing an enemy that opposes that worldview, and then destroying that enemy. Well, I'm not interested in a war. I'm interested in hearing other people's stories and telling them mine, and in having a conversation about what our stories have to do with Story and what that has to say about how we should live.

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June 15, 2009

The Power of Aesthetics, Part 2

In casting my mind around for works of various art forms that have and do inspire and inform my own faith, it immediately occurred to me that I know some forms better than others. Narrative art forms have always had a certain power over me, and as a result I am less able to call, say, a transcendental painting or musical piece immediately to mind. There were also a few additional points that I thought I should raise.

First, while a lot of Christians may think of a favorite work of Christian fiction or a contemporary Christian song when I speak of linking "faith" and "aesthetic experiences," I'm basically talking about works that are valued by the secular world for reasons which have little to do with religion per se. For the most part, these will be works that you won't find in a Christian bookstore (or, at least, not exclusively there). Some of them are religious works created by religious people, but to me their power is that they continue to be appreciated by all sorts of people.

Second, I envision art which inspires a sort of faith as being of at least two kinds. There is art which is explicitly religious (that is, actually about faith in some way), and there is art which inspires a response through its beauty or emotion or profundity without any obvious religious connection. The works that I have chosen to describe below are primarily the former type simply because, even if they don't speak to you the way they speak to me (as some/most of them certainly will not), you will at least be able to see the connection.

I'll start with the Jennings poem (which I didn't include last time) that really inspired this whole line of thought to begin with:

"Act of Imagination" by Elizabeth Jennings

Surely an Act of the Imagination
Helps more than one of Faith
When a doubt brushes us. We need strong passion
To summon miracles. Life after death,

Bread turned into flesh and blood from wine,
I need to cast around
And find an image for the most divine
Concepts. My mind must move on holy ground,

And then the hardest creed - the rising from
Death when Christ indeed
Bled finally - ideas cannot come
As barren notions. Yes, I always need

Herbert's sonnet 'Prayer' say, or that great
Giotto painting for
My heart to leap to God. I want to meet
Him in my own poems, God as metaphor

And rising up. I watch a lucid sky
And see a silver cloud
And Christ's behind it; this is part of faith,
Hear the Great Hours sung and let faith be loud

With the best imagining we have.
This is how I approach
My God-made-Man. Thus I learn to love
And yes, like Thomas, know Christ through a touch.

I love the image of imagination as a virtue and as a faculty worth cultivating, and the way this poem expresses the joy of belief without being dismissive of the magnitude of obstacles to belief. There are all sorts of ways in which doubt can lead to a crisis or loss of faith, but surely one of the most tragic of these would be a simple failure of imagination. I had hoped to somehow avoid invoking the Inklings, but if we're talking about the power of imagination and its role in spiritual life, no group or movement has championed it as thoroughly or eloquently as they have.

Now, while I genuinely enjoy the experience of going to art museums and just standing in front of an original, full-sized painting or sculpture, it isn't something I've done as often as I'd like. The same could be said of my relatively limited knowledge of famous artists and their creations. As a result, not only is my experience very limited, but I must fall back on images that I have only experienced via copies, and often only on a computer screen.

One of the first such images that came to mind in the context of this project was William Blake's "The Ancient of Days." It is not a work which immediately stuns the viewer with its beauty or skill, the way a painting by, say, Caravaggio might, but there is something immediately striking about the way it captures the lovely scriptural metaphors of creation.

God is crouched within the circle of the sun, as though it were not a sphere, and his hair is blowing wildly to the side (by what? we wonder), lending a feeling of energy and activity which might otherwise be lacking. Notice how his attention is focused completely, and with such care and intensity, on the work of creation below. Notice the grace and precision with which he holds that magnificent compass. He seems to be projecting it outwards from his fingers as beams of light. Awesome. The picture makes the immense, unfathomable act of creation into an image we can grasp in the same way that scripture does: by depicting God as a master builder/craftsman/artisan.

When I was much younger, my favorite music was classical (as I had little exposure to any contemporary music that wasn't praise & worship), and my favorite composers were Tchaikovsky and Gershwin. When I reached my mid-teens or thereabouts, my appreciation of instrumental music led to an interest in movie soundtracks; and now, as a full-fledged movie fanatic, I am hard-pressed indeed to call to mind a suitable piece of music that is not from a feature film.

Lest you think I'm cheating, I should note that I own a lot of soundtracks, and the music I'm talking about is not necessarily associated with corresponding images from the film in question. I love it for itself. Before I share, though, I would like to throw in some images from a film: specifically, the scene from Amadeus where Salieri describes his first encounter with Mozart's music.

I feel like I'm hearing that voice sometimes when I'm listening to music, and probably never so much as in this piece from Ennio Morricone's score for The Mission (mostly the first two and a half minutes or so). The film itself is wonderful, but this particular piece seems to have something of its own to say. I'm even less of a music critic than I am an art critic, but there is an extremely haunting beauty about the way that lone oboe carries its melody across the backdrop provided by the rest of the orchestra. It seems like the sort of thing Jennings might have been talking about when she writes (in "Eden"):

There are moments when we find we are
Back in Eden. Its authentic air
Carries the breeze and draws up every flower
Sunwards and shining. Trees surround us but
Always a special one is heavier
With fruit and promise too. No gates are shut

But all swing to our touch. We do not go
Directly to one tree but back in sun,
Sit down a moment, then walk to and fro
shaped of admiration, looking on,
Not picking anything [...]

By way of transition into more literary forms of art, I offer a song that many of you probably already know I particularly love: "Into the West" by Fran Walsh, Howard Shore, and Annie Lennox (who sings it). The song, of course, plays over the end credits of Peter Jackson's film adaptation of Tolkien's Return of the King, and it is an incredibly fitting end on a number of levels. In writing the song, the lyricist has drawn a number of ideas and phrases from the book itself (always a good place to start), and there is a wistful, bittersweet quality to the music and performer's voice that heightens the effect considerably.

The song is ostensibly about the final departure of the story's heroes from Middle Earth to the lands across the sea, but of course it is really an extended metaphor for the loss and separation of death, tempered by a hope for an eventual joyous reunion on the other side. To me it is both a reminder that nothing is forever (neither life on earth, nor the separation from loved ones who have gone on before or remained behind) and a heartbreakingly lovely collection of celestial images. I have listened to this song countless times, and it never fails to move me in some way.

In this, it is not unlike another favorite poem of mine: Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar." This poem is much more about the author's feelings about his own death rather than death in general, and it is much more specific about what he hopes to find on the other side. The last two lines of this poem (or perhaps the last four) are among my favorite lines in literature.

Moving on to narrative, I offer the 7th chapter of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. It's a very fun book with memorable characters and an exciting story, but this chapter (which really has nothing to do with the main plot) is something quite special. In it, Mole and Rat decide to help out in the search for a missing otter pup, but end up finding a great deal more than they expected.

The events in this chapter represent for me the most intense and captivating description of an encounter with deity that I have ever read. It will take the most time to experience of anything that I've linked, but it's not an absurdly long read, so of course I recommend it. At the very least, though, scroll to just over halfway down the page and read the crucial scene. I won't promise that you won't regret it . . . but I never do.

Last but not least, here is my example from that synthesis of all art forms: film. Naturally I've had a number of profound experiences while watching movies, but this scene from American Beauty is a particularly good example because it is actually about the way that aesthetic experiences can surprise and transform anyone at any time, as long as they have been willing to keep their eyes open. Additionally, in the same way that we might not find much meaning in the experience that this character describes, so some viewers and critics found this scene hokey and pretentious, while others were moved by it and what it had to say. In this way it also illustrates yet again the subjectivity of the aesthetic experience.

These are just a few examples for the sake of the conversation which I hope others will contribute to. I'm interested in what sorts of works inspire you, in how you describe that experience, and in its effect on you and your feelings about faith. Talk to me.

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June 11, 2009

The Power of Aesthetics, Part 1

I'm not sure what this post is about, or how to go about ordering my thoughts into something that looks more like a blogpost with something to say than a canoe ride in my stream of consciousness. Sometimes, though, it just helps to start writing. I'm taking a class right now in 20th Century British Poetry. I had never really heard of any of the poets before starting this class, but I've really enjoyed the readings. The professor has us focusing on works with heavy religious imagery, particularly works about faith and doubt.

We're on our third poet, Elizabeth Jennings (a Catholic), and today I'm thinking about the relationship between faith and art. In her poem "An Age of Doubt," Jennings describes her childhood faith, the loss of it she experienced as a young woman ("I suddenly felt unsure/Thought of the Holy Ghost as a huge bird/Which I knew did not exist."), and its eventual return: "So I began to feel a little, O such a little/But so authentic a power, it altered my poems/Whose rhythms sometimes moved to the tide of creation/And felt the touch of a God."

The idea that art has a powerful connection with faith reminded me of a great essay from the New Yorker that Wilson sent me some time ago (I posted on it here). In it, the author describes the experience of watching Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light in a church with another friend from college. The effect was a powerful one, but when the minister followed it up with a particular painting that the author found shallow and kitschy he lost that strong connection. His friend, on the other hand, had the opposite reaction and went on to become a missionary in Africa. The author wonders:

would a different painting—Caravaggio’s “Conversion of St. Paul,” for example—have kept me in the pew? We like to think of our beliefs, and disbeliefs, as founded on reason and close, thoughtful observation. Only in theory do we begin to suspect the power of aesthetics to shape our lives.

And what drew me back, some time later, toward the possibility of faith? Poetry. George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins and T. S. Eliot.

So, what is this power, exactly? Apparently art somehow opens us up to the possibility of faith, but perhaps its role is even more profound than that. Something about art cuts straight to the core of belief in a way that nothing else does. I'm not entirely sure what that something is, but I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that great art communicates truth directly to parts of ourselves that we often don't think consciously about unless we're actually interacting with a work of art. If the work is at all successful, then we sense and appreciate the truth it reveals, even truth about faith.

As Jennings says in her poem "Works of Art:" "every fashioned object makes demands/Though we feel uncommitted at the start." Those two lines capture the way that great art draws you in, forcing some sort of dialogue. The poem is largely about the frustration of only being able to glimpse certain things through art, but Jennings concludes, "coolness is derived from all that heat,/And shadows draw attention to the sun." These tantalizing glimpses of truth are what drive us to continue producing art and entering into conversation with it.

Where this gets even more interesting (at least for me) is the subjectivity factor. As Wolff's Winter Light essay indicates, people respond as variously to art as they do to everything else. In fact, people will often respond differently to something at different times in their lives. Whatever the particular work may be, though, people respond powerfully to whatever manages to speak to them; so powerfully that comparing this response to a "religious experience" is almost a cliche.

Certainly, when I think about it, my own faith is as much aesthetic as it is anything else; probably even more. And yet it is a force that I am sure goes largely unrecognized among believers and nonbelievers alike. When people have a belief that is based in part on Reason, they tend to describe it as though it were only based on Reason (and, consequently, it becomes vulnerable if their reasons are unsound). On the other hand, if someone cannot find a way to rationally articulate their beliefs, they tend to fall back on nebulous claims about the "need for faith." This makes them feel very pious, and (unsurprisingly) is generally sneered at by the people who asked for a reasoned explanation.

What I am proposing is that there are all sorts of other elements in play that most people are not aware of, and wouldn't know how to articulate if they were. Lumping these things into a group and calling them "faith" is easy, but it is also deceptive. I suspect that this sort of "faith" may not always be a kind of blind trust but rather, say, a combination of things like imagination and aesthetic experience. These are things which most of us are not equipped to recognize consciously, and certainly not able to process in the form of a convincing argument. They are, of necessity, very personal.

One of the things that I have appreciated about Jennings' poetry is her ability to describe her own experience of art feeding faith in a way that illuminates my experience for me. This is, in fact, precisely the sort of feat of communication that artists can accomplish for our benefit. In any case, it's gotten me thinking about works that have elicited that kind of strong, quasi-religious experience from me, and I want to come up with a few examples from as many different art forms as possible.

However, perhaps I have a few readers that might be thinking of some experiences of their own, and it'll take me some time to gather a collection like that. Certainly it will provide enough fodder for a whole new post, and I'd like to hear some thoughts on this one before I get specific about my personal experiences. What do you think? Is there any validity to this line of thought, particularly with respect to what makes faith tick? If faith can somehow arise out of aesthetic experiences, does that make it irrational? Is that a negative thing?

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