LeAnne Martin
Christians in the Arts

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Coming Soon & Quotes to Inspire

Soon I’ll be marking the blog’s one-year anniversary, and in honor of that occasion, I’ll be changing the look of the blog a little as well as launching my own website. I’m excited about what's coming soon.

Also, in the next few weeks, I’ll be featuring a sculptor, a photographer, a composer, an actor/singer/writer, an arts enthusiast, and more. If you know of someone you’d like to see featured on the blog, leave a comment and I’ll get back with you.

Now, for the writers and quote-lovers among us, here are a few thoughts for your day:

“A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others.” William Faulkner, Writers at Work—First Series (1958)

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Anton Chekhov

“A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line.” Joseph Conrad

“A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” Thomas Mann

“I have always liked to let things simmer in my mind for a long time before setting them down on paper.” William Somerset Maugham

“The pen is the tongue of the mind.” Miguel de Cervantes

Monday, August 27, 2007

Dick Staub, Part 3: To Artists

Today I’m concluding my interview with Dick Staub, author of The Culturally Savvy Christian and two other books. He is an award-winning broadcaster and speaker whose work focuses on understanding faith and culture and interpreting each to the other. He is the radio personality behind The Dick Staub Show, a nationally syndicated daily broadcast he hosted for fifteen years, and The Kindlings Muse podcast at www.thekindlings.com. His commentaries can be read regularly at www.dickstaub.com.

LeAnne: What advice would you give artists who are trying to bring salt and light to the culture?

The first thing would be to cultivate their personal walk with God. When my dad was a teenager he got the chance to chauffeur A.W. Tozer around to his speaking engagements. Thinking this was his chance to get insight into how to go deeper in faith, he asked Tozer the secret to growing in the knowledge and practice of the holy. My father expected a deeply intellectual and profound response, but Tozer’s pastoral response lacked any lofty theological pretense. “Young man” he said, “read the Bible and pray everyday and you’ll grow like a weed.”

Secondly, I would advise them to hone their craft. I'm reminded of what Samuel Johnson said regarding one writer’s work, "Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good!”

Third, I would urge them to stay true to their artistic vision instead of allowing it to be subsumed by economic drivers. We need to provide for our families, but we also need to make good authentic art.

Fourth, if you have the talent and are called to do so, serve culture by making art as a Christian rather than simply creating art to be consumed by a Christian sub-culture.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Dick Staub, Part 2: Fully Human

I’m continuing my interview with Dick Staub, author of The Culturally Savvy Christian and two other books. He is an award-winning broadcaster and speaker whose work focuses on understanding faith and culture and interpreting each to the other. He is the radio personality behind The Dick Staub Show, a nationally syndicated daily broadcast he hosted for fifteen years, and The Kindlings Muse podcast at www.thekindlings.com. His commentaries can be read regularly at www.dickstaub.com.

LeAnne: How can Christians be culturally savvy without becoming culturally saturated?

This is the 'in the world not of it' challenge. Ultimately we find our place in culture by going deeper in our faith. Only the person who is experiencing God's loving, transforming presence personally is in a place to offer the same to culture.

A person of deep faith will also take seriously our three roles in culture. We are countercultural like aliens, in that we should be different from the world around us. We communicate like ambassadors, learning the language of both faith and culture and interpreting each to the other. We are creators of culture like artists.

There is a paradox here. I find many Christians eager to transform the world, but not so willing to allow God to transform them. I'm learning that God isn't interested in transforming me so that I can transform the world; God wants to transform me so that I can become fully human. Transforming the world is the by-product, not the aim of being fully human, and it only occurs when transformed individuals seek and do God's will as Jesus did.

The key to cultural transformation is personal transformation and the key to personal transformation is the deep presence of God in the human life.

LM: Why are the arts and artists so important to transforming today's culture?

The artist's first calling is to make good art to the glory of God. Loading them down with an agenda crosses the line from art to propaganda; a bad thing to do!
Artistic influence is a by product of art not its aim.

Having said that, I do think artists operate in a creative mode like God in Genesis 1, where the creator God sees potential and brings things into existence that were not there before. The artist is like a prophet in that when he or she sees something, they want to communicate the good, true and beautiful as they see it.

This truth telling is essential for anyone creating authentic art and inevitably carries the possibility of transformation. This is what journalist Malcolm Muggeridge meant when he said, "Only mystics, clowns and artists, in my experience, speak the truth, which, as Blake keeps insisting, is perceptive to the imagination rather than the mind. Our knowledge of Jesus Christ is far too serious a business to be left to theologians alone. From the Middle Ages these have monotonously neglected art and the imagination as guides to religious truth. I find myself in complete agreement with those who wish to reinstate the mystics, the clowns and artists alongside the scholars. To modify Wittgenstein; what we cannot imagine, we must confine to silence and unbelief."

More from Dick on Monday.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Dick Staub: The Culturally Savvy Christian

Dick Staub is an award-winning broadcaster, author, and speaker, whose work focuses on understanding faith and culture and interpreting each to the other. He is the radio personality behind The Dick Staub Show, a nationally syndicated daily broadcast he hosted for fifteen years, and The Kindlings Muse podcast at www.thekindlings.com. He is author of Too Christian, Too Pagan and Christian Wisdom of the Jedi Masters. His commentaries can be read regularly at www.dickstaub.com.

He’s also a friend. I’m pleased to have him on the blog discussing his new book, The Culturally Savvy Christian.

LeAnne: Describe today's culture as well as what you call Christianity-Lite.

My interest in popular culture began in the 60s when we all had high hopes of ushering in a spiritual, intellectual and artistic renaissance. Instead we’ve created an unbearably light popular culture that is diversionary (entertainment), often mindless (amusement) featuring celebrities known for being known. Profit motives, targeted marketing and new technologies drive this enterprise instead of good art and ideas.

American Christianity, particularly evangelicalism, in its quest to be ‘relevant’ has become like the culture instead of transforming it. The result is a diversionary, mindless celebrity religious culture that is good at marketing for numeric growth. Evangelicals are known as a voting block, a purchasing niche but not as an intellectual or aesthetically enriching force.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn said at Harvard University in 1978, “After the suffering of decades of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits, introduced by the revolting invasion of publicity, by TV stupor and by intolerable music… If the world has not approached its end, it has reached a major watershed in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will demand from us a spiritual blaze; we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life.”

I think Christians are supposed to be that spiritual blaze in culture and to do so requires that we be culturally savvy Christians of deep faith.

LM: What are some characteristics of a culturally savvy Christian?

Christians have fallen into three unproductive relationships with culture. We cocoon ourselves (circle the wagons keep the ‘good guys in’ and the ‘bad guys out’), or do combat with culture, or we conform to culture, becoming like it.

Jesus was a loving, transforming presence in culture. He was in the world (he could not be cocooned), he loved people (so he did not just want to combat culture), but he also wanted to transform culture (so could not be conformed to it).

In that sense Jesus was the prototype for the first culturally savvy Christian!

I define the culturally savvy Christian as someone who is serous about faith, savvy about faith and culture and skilled at relating each to the other. To be savvy means "to get it", and we need to be savvy about both the culture and faith we are in.

We have forgotten that for centuries Christians were known for their intellectual, artistic and spiritual contributions to society. Bach, Mendelssohn, Dante, Dostoevsky, Newton, Pascal and Rembrandt are but a few who personified the rich tradition of faith, producing the highest and best work, motivated by a desire to glorify God and offered in service of others for the enrichment of our common environment: culture.

It is time for Christians to discover and rekindle our spiritual, intellectual and creative legacy.

More from Dick Staub on Thursday.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Words from the Wise

I have posted these quotations before but they fit so well with Robert Benson’s interview that I decided to give them to you again. Enjoy.

"The poet is not a man who asks me to look at him; he is a man who says “look at that” and points." C. S. Lewis, The Personal Heresy

"My assumption is that the story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all." Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life

Next week: culture expert Dick Staub, author of The Culturally Savvy Christian

Coming soon: a sculptor, a photographer, and more

Monday, August 13, 2007

Robert Benson, Part 3: Digging In

Today I’m concluding my conversation with Robert Benson (www.robertbensonwriter.com), whose books include Between the Dreaming and Coming True (HarperCollins), Living Prayer and The Game (Tarcher), That We May Perfectly Love Thee and A Good Life (Paraclete), The Body Broken (Doubleday), Home by Another Way (WaterBrook), and Digging In: Tending to Life in Your Own Backyard (WaterBrook). He lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

LeAnne: Your definition of the word poet is broader than most standard definitions. How do you define it?

A poet to me doesn’t just rhyme things. It’s not just a person who works in a certain form. In the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads—William Wordsworth was given credit for having written what Samuel Coleridge probably wrote in the Preface—but at any rate, in the Preface it says that a poet does not see or hear things that nonpoets do not see or hear. It’s just that the poet has the ability to recall what he or she has seen and heard and then recreate it in some way so the nonpoets who didn’t notice it can see or hear it again. And then there is some chance that they can actually notice what they saw and heard.

Being a poet is not about a particular medium. It includes painters and singers, essayists and novelists and landscapers, as far as I am concerned. Teachers and preachers and priests and nurses are poets. If Annie Liebovitz the photographer is not a poet, I don’t know who is. I gave my wife her book for Christmas. It’s breathtaking. If Beethoven was not a poet, I don’t know who is. One does not have to be an artist who works in a particular medium to be called a poet. Poetry becomes a much larger thing and therefore the definition of a poet is a much larger thing.

LM: Let’s talk about your latest book. What are some of the things you’ve learned from Digging In?

My two younger children came to live with my wife (their stepmother) and me when they were 12 and 14 (7th grade and 9th grade). And we had this back yard that had nothing in it. And we had these two kids that we had seen every other weekend for years and taken them on vacations. It’s not like we didn’t know each other or ever spend any time with each other. But we had a way of being together when we saw each other every other weekend and then suddenly we were going to be together 24 hours a day, more or less, so we had to learn everything about each other almost all over again. We had to have structure and rituals and habits and routines. Digging in for me involved all of that. It’s not just about building a fence and building a garden—it’s about building a life together.

I learned that everything I really cared about was in my own back yard. I learned that the real world wasn’t out there someplace, it was in my own yard. Everybody that I loved, everything that mattered, everything holy was all in my own back yard. And I don’t think I ever noticed that before. You know there’s a tendency for all of us to think that the real stuff, the good stuff, is out there somewhere. It was fun to discover that what really mattered to me was about 12 feet from my back door. That’s what I loved the best about it. Also, I discovered my daughter is the hardest working yard worker in the universe, that my wife can actually talk roses into blooming, which is an extraordinary talent, and that my son is really smart and really fun. I learned a lot about patience, a lot about waiting. It was fun.

Coming up next: culture expert Dick Staub

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Robert Benson, Part 2: Writing as Art

This week I’m featuring writer Robert Benson (www.robertbensonwriter.com), whose books include Between the Dreaming and Coming True (HarperCollins), Living Prayer and The Game (Tarcher), That We May Perfectly Love Thee and A Good Life (Paraclete), The Body Broken (Doubleday), Home by Another Way (WaterBrook), and Digging In: Tending to Life in Your Own Backyard (WaterBrook). He lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

LeAnne: When I heard you speak at the Mount Hermon conference several years ago, you talked about writing as art. I had been writing for magazines for a while and had attended several Christian writers conferences by then, but that was the first time I’d ever heard anyone in the Christian market refer to writing as art. It was a breath of fresh air. In the Christian market, the message is emphasized more than the art. Is there a way to balance the two?

There are writers and there are authors. Writers write sentences; authors make books. Writers write enough sentences that go together that they finally end up a paragraph. And then they end up a story, then a chapter, and then [writers] end up with a book that looks remarkably like this thing that is made by people who are authors. They look so similar it’s really hard to tell the difference but they are not the same thing. One is a message packaged in such a way that it can be sold on the shelf where people sell books. It’s propaganda, or it’s instruction, or it’s how to, or it’s teaching, or whatever else. It’s not art. It’s not writing. It’s not done by writers—it’s done by people who own typewriters. Those are two different things. Does that make sense?

Now I’m not making a value judgment. There is no value judgment being made by me about authors who write books, who have messages that they want to get out that end up being packaged between a hardcover and a spine. That’s a lovely way to do something. I’m glad for those people.

But writing is done by artists who learn the craft, find their voice, and figure out what it is they have to say that no one else has to say. That crowd of people is a smaller crowd of people. For one thing it’s a very hard life. My life is lovely—I’m not whining or complaining—but it’s not easy work. The hours are terrible. There’s a quote that goes like this: “Most people aren’t writers and very little harm ever comes to them.” But the people who are writers—it’s not an easy thing to do. It’s the only thing I would do. But if you’re going to do it, the art is all that matters.

And if you want to write, there are two questions you ask of your work. You write something and when you get to the end of it you ask, “Does this scare me to death?” Does it scare you because it’s so self-revelatory and honest that you’re afraid someone will think less of you? Does it scare you because you think it’s so out there and pushing the edge so hard that you’re afraid you’re going to get into trouble? Because if you start down this rabbit hole, the book that comes out the other end of this is going to be really scary? Does it scare you because you think you can’t sell it to anybody because you think it might be too good? So the first question is: Does it scare you?

The second question is: Does it make you gasp? Nearly everything that was ever any good scared the writer to death. And it made them gasp. It was breathtaking. It’s scary to go into the room because you’re afraid you’re going to mess it up. You think, “Oh, I’m so close to something, if I could just get it right. I can hear this in my head and if I could just get it close to right.”

Now if the answer to both of those questions—does it scare me to death and does it make me gasp—is yes, it doesn’t guarantee that what you’re going to end up with is actually any good. I will say this: if the answer to either of those questions is no, then the chances of ending up with anything that’s any good are slim and none. If you get one no or two nos, then I can guarantee it’s not going to be any good. But the craft, the work, the profession, whatever word you want to use, is in those two questions.

Generally my sense has always been that art is best served if [the message] is basically ignored. Because if you get [the art] right somebody will put it between two covers. Because editors are dying to read artistic work again. They got into this business because they read one of those and it changed them and it shaped them and they grew up saying, “I want to be a part of that.” And when they find one, they will put it between two covers. And nobody knows but you who made it, the audience that you manage to find, and the person who bought it from you.

The reason these books are not published a lot in religious markets is because not enough religious writers have the nerve and the gumption and the discipline and the dedication to write them. If you hang around religious publishing and people who write in this area long enough, you’ll hear someone start complaining that the stuff being published is not very good, that nobody publishes artistic work. The reason nobody publishes the artistic kind of work is because not enough of it is being written.

Which now gets us back to the original question—the part about the message. If you want to make art that is somehow connected to your faith, the trick is not to make it good Christianity—the trick is to make it great art. The reason you don’t get great art from writers who happen to be Christians (I prefer that way of saying it to the phrase “Christian writers”) is because they don’t have enough nerve or enough discipline, or they don’t work hard enough to find their voice, or they don’t actually learn their craft, or they don’t make things that scare them, or they don’t make things that make them gasp. They fall down not on the theology or the message side; they fall down on the art side.

It’s too easy for those of us who try to do this kind of work to say, “The market’s not interested, the publishers aren’t interested, the stores aren’t interested.” It’s just too easy. We’re letting ourselves off the hook. What we have to do is write something great. Most of us give up too soon and blame it on [publishers] and say they don’t want it. And it simply isn’t true.

More from Robert Benson on Monday.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Robert Benson: Getting to Original Work

Robert Benson (www.robertbensonwriter.com) writes and speaks often on the meditative life. His thoughts have been featured on NPR’s national program “Studio 360.” Known for his warmth and creative style, he invites readers to seek and savor the sacred that is to be found in the ordinary of our lives. His books include Between the Dreaming and the Coming True (HarperCollins), Living Prayer and The Game (Tarcher), That We May Perfectly Love Thee and A Good Life (Paraclete), The Body Broken (Doubleday), Home by Another Way (WaterBrook), and Digging In: Tending to Life in Your Own Backyard (WaterBrook). He lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

A few years ago, I heard Robert Benson speak at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers conference. As the keynoter, he spoke for an hour or so every evening. He talked a lot about his story, about faith and art and writing and prayer. His words both renewed my vision of doing something different with my writing and motivated me to dust off my softball glove.

Robert’s a huge baseball fan, and when he read from his book The Game, I remembered my own love of softball growing up. I thought of how my big sister and I would spend summer evenings in the back yard with our parents teaching us to field grounders, snag flies, and hit the ball. Those memories are so gorgeous to me that they take on a hazy sort of glow, soft around the edges. I enjoyed reliving them.

One afternoon about halfway through the conference, I saw Robert in a courtyard with a small group of young people. He was throwing a ball with an attendee who had the foresight to bring her glove to the conference with her. The fact that it had never occurred to me to pack my own did not deter me. I walked up and asked, “Can I play?” He grinned and said, “Sure. You can use my glove.” As the young writer and I threw a few, we all talked about our favorite baseball teams and about our writing. Pretty soon, Robert needed to leave for a meeting and I needed to find a quiet place to put pen to paper.

What Robert said that week inspired me and continues to do so even now. Last month, I had the opportunity to sit down with him and have a lengthy conversation about writing and art. He was in town for ICRS, the International Christian Retail Show, for the release of his new book, Digging In: Tending to Life in Your Own Backyard. Because we talked for quite a while, I have more material than I usually do and will be featuring him this week as well as next Monday. It’s a pleasure to share his insights with you.

LeAnne: When you spoke at the Mount Hermon conference, you talked about three things that writers should do. What are they?

I was taught and I believe that a writer has three jobs: the first is to learn the craft, the second is to find their voice, and the third is to figure out what they have to say. It’s hard for one writer to speak for all writers, because writers operate differently. However for most people the first pile of stuff you write is easy because you’re running on pure talent. It comes out of pure talent, pure joy, and pure exuberance. If you want to figure out how to make a living of this—I love art for art’s sake, it just doesn’t pay very well—then at some point you have to be paid to do it. Otherwise you don’t have time to do it. And if you want to be paid to do this, you’re going to have to learn the craft.

The way to learn the craft is to do it every day on a disciplined, organized, rigorous basis. Do it and get better at it. I knew I wanted to write books when I was 13 years old. I spent 15 years writing corporate communications copy, figuring that if I could ever get a guy to pay me by the hour to write sentences, then I’d learn to write sentences well enough to get somebody to read them if I ever got them published in a book. You’ve got to learn the craft and the only way to learn it is to do it all the time and, frankly, see if somebody will pay for it. If nobody will pay for it, and nobody will listen, nobody will run your columns, nobody will run your essays, you haven’t learned it. Getting the first one published is easy. It’s the next one and the next one and the next one and the next one that aren’t necessarily based on true talent—they’re based on craft. Learn the craft.

The second thing is you have to discover your voice. It takes a while to figure out your voice and the only way to do it is to keep working until you begin to sound like no one else. I discovered I had my own voice within about a six week period of time. When you write corporate communications copy, your job is to take a company’s story and write it in their voice so that when a prospective client or customer reads it, it’s a Rand McNally way of talking or a Wheaton College voice. You have to learn those voices and write the way those companies talk. So, I was turning in some work to six of my best clients and they all kept throwing it back saying, “It doesn’t sound like us.” At the end of six weeks, I was thinking maybe I couldn’t do this anymore. Then it occurred to me: It all sounds like me.

You discover a way that you have—a lilt, a rhythm, a pace, a structure—and it doesn’t sound like anyone else. A lot of times, especially for young writers, the first crowd of compliments is “oh, that reminds me of Fred Buechner” or “that reminds me of Annie Dillard” or “that sounds like…” We don’t actually need an Annie Dillard, we don’t actually need a Fred Buechner, we don’t need a Thomas Merton. We already have one of each. You can tell you’ve begun to find your voice when people no longer say “oh that sounds like...” It’s really a subtle kind of thing. Every once in a while someone will say something nice and compare something I do with someone I admire and that’s a lovely thing. But if it happens very often, it occurs to me that I’m not working very hard, and I’ve gotten sloppy and lazy.

So you’ve got to learn the craft, find your voice.

And the last part is this: you have to figure out what it is that you have to say, preferably that no one has either said or has to say, stories you can tell that no one else can, the stuff you care about that nobody else seems to care about. Annie Dillard said in The Writing Life (I’m paraphrasing): “A writer looking for subjects does not look for what other people love but for what he alone loves.” In the Christian publishing market, I suppose that any of us who can write sentences can probably write Bible studies. I suppose I could do that but then no one will tell the stories that only I can tell.

What I’m interested in is a writer who says, “These are the things that only I can do,” whatever it is. It’s how you get to original work. For me as a writer, for me as a reader, for me as a participant in conversations with other writers about writing, original is all that matters. Publishing doesn’t actually matter. Original writing matters and the only way to get that is to learn the craft, to find your own voice, and to find out what it is you have to say—the stories you have to tell that no one else will tell or can tell. Everything else is derivative.

More from Robert Benson on Thursday.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Katherine Gant, Part 2: Freedom Through Surrendering the Gift

Today I’m concluding my interview with dancer Katherine Gant, who has danced with Classical Ballet Memphis, Ad Deum Dance Company (www.danceaddeum.com), Project Dance (www.projectdance.com), Ballet Magnificat! (www.balletmagnificat.com) and more. Katherine continues to teach and dance and is a founding member of the Atlanta Christian Dance Community (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/atlchristiandance).

LM: How has your faith affected your passion for dance?

I once danced for my own glory and satisfaction but it left me feeling very empty. When I realized that my gift of dance comes from the Lord and can be used by Him, a whole new world opened up. The burden of perfectionism that comes with this art form vanished and a new freedom to simply dance came. I deeply desire to help all dancers find the freedom that comes from surrendering their gift of dance to be used by Him.

LM: Have you found that other Christians don’t understand why you are involved in the arts?

It is tough to address dancing within the church to other Christians. They are always opposed simply because they have never been shown what the scripture says about it. My favorite verse to take them to is Psalms 149:3: “Let them praise His name with dancing.”

LM: What would you say to encourage other artists who are trying to live their faith and their art in the world?

I think Christian artists really struggle with being artistic and still being a Christian. I think too often we try to separate the two when really they go hand in hand. If we are truly hidden in Christ, all we say, do, write, dance or speak will reflect Him, even our art. We shouldn’t focus on asking “Is this Christian art?” but on listening with our heart and fleshing out what He has shown us deep inside.

Note: Katherine is Event Coordinator for New York-based Project Dance’s inaugural event in Atlanta to be held in Centennial Olympic Park on Sept. 22, 2007. The event, which occurs over a three-day weekend, includes dance classes, motivational forums, networking and a free all-day dance concert held in the heart of the city.

“The purpose of the free dance concert is to share our talents with the people of Atlanta and to communicate a message of hope and healing through the language of dance,” explained Cheryl Cutlip, founder of Project Dance.

Project Dance was born out of a desire to serve the people of New York directly after the events of September 11th and it has managed to do just that for the past six years.

Next month, at the first event in Atlanta, about 200 dancers will gather to take part in the festivities. Although the weekend is designed to give participants the opportunity to perform and take dance classes, Project Dance also strives to inspire dancers as artists and individuals. All of the activities over the weekend focus on faith and personal growth.

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