Suggested Book List

Suggested Reading List

I am often asked for suggested reading lists from fellow creatives eager to dive deeper into the connections between faith and art. So, I compiled a few books for you which I find myself returning to again and again. I'll post five suggestions this week and five more for you next week. 

These are not in any specific order, but have each impacted me beyond a surface level and continue to shape my creative journey. Let me know what books you would add to this list and share your thoughts on these in the comments once you've read them. 

1. Walking On Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L'Engle

This book is a timeless Classic for aspiring artists of faith. Madeleine opens the book with a candid reluctance to even use the terms "Christian artist" and "Christian art". She says, "Christian art? Art is art; painting is painting; music is music; a story is a story. If it's bad art, it's bad religion, no matter how pious the subject." I love it. It is an easy read and one you will underline over and over. One more quote.  "We live by revelation, as Christians, as artists, which means that we must be careful never to get set into rigid molds. The minute we begin to think we have all the answers, we forget the questions and we become smug like the Pharisee who listed all his considerable virtues and thanked God he was not like other men."

2. New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton

Whereas, this isn't directly a book about art or creativity, contemplation is at the heart of all art. Merton discusses some of the most in depth thoughts on identity I have ever read. Even if you don't read the whole book, (and most paragraphs you'll need to read twice at least), read the chapter Things In Their Identity.  Here's a quote: "A tree gives glory to God first of all by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be , it is imitating an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree. The more it is like itself, the more it is like Him." He also includes a chapter titled Sentences which has tons of wisdom for artists and writers. Here's another quote. "The poet enters into himself in order to create. The contemplative enters into God in order to be created." 

3. On Creativity by David Bohm

This book is not for the light of heart. First off, the author is a physicist. It is primarily philosophical in nature but not so full of terms such as "ontological" that the rest of us can't benefit from it. Bohm is an atheist with a Jewish heritage. So if you aren't accustomed to finding gold outside of the camp, this book may be a stretch. However, his insights have led me closer to experiencing God than many contemporary Christian writings. When I first read this book, I found myself littering the margins with scripture references that perfectly coincided with his thought processes. This book has become a go to book for much of my own work. His connections between art, science and religion are presented in such a way you don't feel left on the outside or stupid for trying to understand. He draws clear distinctions between what are truly "original" modes of being and those which are merely "mechanical".  

4. The Mind of The Maker by Dorothy Sayers

Dorothy Sayers was an amazing, multi-faceted woman. She was a poet, theologian and contemporary of Tolkien T.S. Eliot and a friend of C.S. Lewis. She is primarily known as a detective mystery writer though she also wrote many essays on art and the creative process. In The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy draws analogies between human creators and the doctrine of the Trinity. This is a phenomenal work drawing direct lines between creativity and theology. 

5. Art Needs No Justification by Hans Rookmaaker

If you don't read anything else, read this one. It is a short but essential writing. Rookmaaker lays out the challenges artists face in discovering their role in society. More specifically, he addresses the challenges and stresses Christian artists face in living in a "post-Christian" world. He lays out the consequences of separating into a Christian sub-culture and calls the Christian artist to participate in the culture at large.  Here's the first paragraph:

"Artists in our society are in a very peculiar position. On the one hand they are regarded very highly, almost like high priests of culture who know the inner secrets of reality. On the other hand they are completely superfluous people. Respected, yes. But others are still quite ready to allow them to starve. We want artists to be serious and create deep things that have almost eternal value, things that people of culture can talk about centuries later. But if artists want to be successful, they have to bow down to present tastes, be commercial and play the clown rather than the sage. Of course this is not a new problem. It has been like this since the eighteenth century when the old concept of the artist as craftsman began to be exchanged for a concept that saw him as both a gifted genius and a social and economic outcast.

Artists who are Christians also struggle with these tensions. But the problems of Christian artists are often greater because it is difficult for any Christian to live in a postChristian world. Artists are expected to work from their convictions, but these may be seen by their atheistic contemporaries as ultraconservative if not totally passé. On top of this they often lack the support of their own community their church and family. To them artists seem to be radicals or idle no-gooders. They are branded as being on the wrong track even from the start. Thus Christian artists are often working under great stress."

I mean come on. How could you not go buy this book now after reading that? 

Thanks for reading. I'll give you five more next week. 

Thoughts on Bono's call for honesty in Christian music

The short film "The Psalms" has been circulating across the web this week, stirring up an array of responses from the Christian community. The film is a conversation between The Message Translator, Eugene Peterson, and Bono of U2. In the film, Bono makes the statement that he finds a lot of dishonesty in Christian music and art. He recommends that Christian artists, 

"write a song about their bad marriage, write a song about how they are pissed off at the government because that's what God wants from you, the truth... and that truthfulness... will blow things apart.  Why I'm suspicious of Christians is because of this lack of realism and I'd love to see more of that in art and in life and music." 

Bono contrasts the "airy fairy" content of what he witnesses in modern Christian music to the brutal honesty written in the Psalms. In many ways I could not agree more. But there is more to the story to consider. 

To begin with, there are a lot of "Christian artists" who cannot or will not identify with that term simply because to do so, they immediately inherit a host of crippling stigmas and a mass of assumptions about their art. Not to mention the heaps of pressure and expectations put upon them from the church community. (Should I mention what happened to Gungor when he made several theological statements that didn't jive with the church communities hosting his performances? Let's just say the tour was rerouted.) Perhaps the honesty Bono is looking for could be more easily found within Christian artists who aren't branded as such than in those who are by label, "Christian artists." (Sufjan Stevens, Johnny Swim and Mumford & Sons come to mind.)

The "dishonesty" Bono is witnessing is primarily a product of Industry and party-line, communal acceptance rather than dishonesty within individual artists themselves. I have personally spoken with Christian artists whose lyrical content has been censored, edited or re-directed by their label or management. Before we judge them (there is enough of that going on in our communities) let's put ourselves in their position. Family, livelihood and vocation may be at stake. Who is to say what we would choose given their disposition. 

When discussing my own art, one of my least favorite questions is "Are you a Christian band?" What does that even mean? If I am a Christian and an artist, does it mean my art must serve the agenda of the Church or a ministry? I don't know another genre of music that is defined by the artist's theological position or personal persuasions instead of the content of the music itself. Do you ever hear the question asked, "Are they a Muslim band?" or "Are they a Buddhist band?" 

Christian music itself cannot properly be lumped into one defining label. We must remember that all music is contextual, especially Christian music or more specifically, worship music. Even in the Psalms there are teaching songs, praise songs, laments and even national songs. I could write about a bad marriage or political unrest and put it on my album for someone's personal meditation time but to sing it on Sunday morning may not accomplish the goal of that experience. Worship music is for connecting the believer's heart, mind and emotion to the truths of who God is. I can write songs with a Christian world view and it can be every bit an expression of my worship, but if it does not serve the purpose of the context I'm presenting it within, the song will fall flat. Congregational worship music is a very purpose-specific art form.

The Psalms were the Hebrew worship hymnal and certainly did include all of those types of songs I listed above, and even songs of David's repentance for adultery. That is bold. That is truthful, that is raw and will speak more to the world than angel-harp-cloud music. (I suppose there is a place for everything.) I do think very much so that Christian artists need to find the freedom and permission (you don't really need permission, just go do it) to explore real life experiences coupled with the hope and reality of the gospel and bring them into the context of worship. Where else can we take them? 

I'm grateful for Bono's heart, his words, his wisdom and perspective. (Thank you for speaking out!) Ultimately, I think his issue may be more with the industry that has produced dishonest, cardboard Christian music rather than with the artists themselves. My guess is that if our communities at large (and dare I even challenge the industry?) made room for more honest exploration without judgment or excommunication, you would see more integral art coming from the Church. Maybe we would even experience less stigma from the general market and more accurately portray the gospel we desire folks to encounter. 

Here's an idea. Bono should start his own label for honest Christian themed art. And maybe we as Christian artists can stand together to make bold choices with our work and not sell out to the status quo or the expectations of mediocrity. Oh and back to Gungor. Have you read his latest lyrics? That's honesty for you. Keep going, friend.

"If all the outsiders are wrong

If your questions don't belong

If your doubt is called a sin

And you're not to search within

Let it go, open your eyes" 

- Gungor

The Breath & The Clay

The Breath & The Clay

I'm sitting in a quiet house with my morning coffee, journal and pen--a typical scene of my life especially in the afterglow of a transformative experience as The Breath and the Clay. But rather than scribbling my thoughts on paper, I decided to put the pen down and process out loud this time. My heart is full from the incredible weekend and I'm sure just as myself, you who were part of The Breath & the Clay are still buzzing from all that happened.

I said it from the stage several times, but this year felt special, different in some way. This is the third gathering we have done, and each has carried a magic of its own. But this time, rather than being a disparate, one-off event, I felt roots beginning to grow and intertwine beneath our feet. Something greater than any one person's vision began to rise from our midst. Relationships, connections, a sense of home was present. I feel the tremendous joy of God's invitation to continue stewarding and nourishing this... movement?  ...happening? ...community.  

My mind and spirit wasted no time envisioning ideas for next year and thinking of ways to stay connected in the meantime. I already see so much for the next one, and I'm inspired to get started on it today. But more than developing ideas for our next gathering, what grabs my heart is the idea that we are being swept up into something eternal and God-breathed. Much like the way we approach the art we make, I find myself asking, listening and watching to see what it is The Breath & the Clay itself desires to become. 

I believe a strong foundation was set this year.  Now we can begin to build even greater, higher, deeper expressions and collaborations on this journey together.  Thanks to everyone who came and poured out your hearts and your art into this growing community. I look forward to seeing what happens from here.  The best is yet to come.