Pastor’s Corner – Newsletter November 2013

banksy-new-york1I shared a piece of art criticism on Facebook recently. Unsurprisingly I got no comments. The pictures of kids or “kids say the darndest things” are guaranteed to get a few likes. Political stories or religious pieces usually get a few comments. This one, which wasn’t just signaling or positioning, but had the depth to cause thought, vanished without a blip.

The artist in question is Banksy. To many he might not be an artist but a simple public nuisance. He paints using spray paint and stencils on public walls. Recently he came to NYC for a month long “residency” cheekily making fun of vBanksy defacedarious artist-in-residence programs around the country. Thbanksy_this_is_my_new_york_accente nearby picture is one of those works. The child picking her nose as lady liberty is yes juvenile but a catchy riff for an Englishman in New York. A couple of other works from this residency are nearby with that same just fun to be here zing. The second one to the right shows that Banksy got a full NY welcome as competing NY taggers took to commenting somewhat less completely on the work.

Now if all Banksy did was work such as those he’d be a funny defacer of property. One of those guys you’d feel bad about locking up, but glad that it’s over. But Banksy also does work like this to the left. Banksy Ghetto for lifeAnd it is work like this which caused the piece that I shared on facebook. Because it is the idle rich of NYC that have time and care to chase Banksy work around the city before it is defaced or protected by someone even richer. And that is what the piece that I shared pondered. Banksy admits he is a failure. His work, originally a form of protest or a shout from the lower depths that we are still here and watching, has become popular. Rich people buy the buildings he’s painted on and hire 24 hr security until they can destroy the building to save the canvass. And he will occasionally make pieces available in galleries for handsome commissions. The picture of Mickey, Ronald and Napalm Girl nearby is an example. Again you can pick up relatively effortlessly on the theme of privilege and trivialization. This one has renewed meaning of how un-serious a people we have become.Banksy_Napalm_HR_400k In those days of division and protest an image like the naked girl running from Napalm could prick the American conscience. Recently a Pakistani family testified about Grandma killed as collateral damage of a drone strike. This strike occurred the day before the Eid – say the day before Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve. Presidential spokesman Jay Carney would respond that drones strikes are better than the alternative, which is undoubtedly true. The problem is that they are guided by intelligence. Is that grandma, or a terrorist meeting? Ask the intelligence analyst. What, he’s on vacation at Disney land? And once ordered, there are no humans on the ground to see the truth, or to call it off when the intelligence is wrong. And how often is our intelligence wrong? And this goes on in our names while we go to Disney and eat Happy Meals. Because Banksy now makes his living from selling to the very people who encourage these things, can he really critique them? Or is he a failure, a parasite on the very things he is commenting on? He doesn’t mean it. It is just prophecy as chic hucksterism. Like the boy spray-painting ghetto being watched by Jeeves holding his cans on the silver platter.

Banksy gets this, and he gets the deeper law-gospel vein that he is working in. As part of an interview granted the NY Times he comments – “There is no way around it – commercial success is a mark of failure for a graffiti artist…it is like the ancient Kings of Israel inviting a prophet to a royal dinner, Yes, come eat dinner with us and say more about this law-breaking thing and how God’s going to judge us – my guests from the next kingdom over will get a total kick out of it.” If all he was busking was the law, he’d be a hypocrite. And he knows it. “I’m a failure”. Which under the law, we are all failures. But Banksy did something else during his residency. He set up a pop-up booth in Central Park and started selling prints. What he was offering was original Banksy signed works. Works that would go for a minimum of $30,000 each in a gallery. After this they would probably go for much more. The price he put on them at the stall? $60. He released a video of each purchase including one of a mother bargaining him down to $30 to decorate her son’s bedroom. All day in central park and he made three sales. After the completion of each sale, he asks each purchaser – all who are oblivious of the hidden treasure just bought – if he can hug them.

Like this is the Kingdom of God. Finding a treasurer buried in the field, a pearl of great price under-priced at the flea market. It is hidden in plain sight. It is given away. The rich and powerful, the violent always try and bear it away, but it always upset their order. False prophets come and try and over-write it, but it just grows again. Because the Kingdom is grace. It is the hug of the Father who is just happy for you that you are alive. The owner who pays the same regardless of the work performed – regardless of your merit or lack – regardless of your cool or loser-dom. Would that we could all be such failures.

The Art of Asking

Somebody once asked how you judged sermons. Okay, many people did. The funny thing is judging a sermon depends upon the congregation. For example there are three congregations on our corner: Lutheran, Northern Baptist and African American. Not that you couldn’t deliver roughly the same sermon in words before each, but the reaction would be different in each. Part of that is because the sermon is a shared experience. There are a thousand ways that a sermon goes bad and you can diagnose those. But a good sermon is just The Word. How do you know? At the end, you just say “Word”. I just heard truth, more like Truth.

Although not in a Christian context, not even explicitly spiritual, this is The Word. There is something deeply true about this presentation.

An Artistic Moment (and a religious ghost?)

Nari Ward Amazing Grace

The picture above is of a modern sculpture installation that seems poignant. The article accompanying the picture further describes the work, how it came together and its multiple instalations…

…Three hundred and sixty five strollers later, Mr. Ward’s collection became the seminal work “Amazing Grace”: shabby vehicles arranged with lengths of fire hose in the shape of a ship’s hull. A recording of “Amazing Grace,” by Mahalia Jackson, plays on a loop overhead. First installed by the artist in 1993 in a former firehouse on 141st Street, the piece conveyed both a sober perspective of what the neighborhood had endured—the crack epidemic, urban blight—and also hope for the future…

None of the various interpretations applied strike me as deeply insightful. Why would a bunch of abandoned strollers strung together be such a powerful piece of art that it would be moved around the world and 20 years later be reassembled as representative of the best. Why would this move people? I can’t see empty abandoned strollers being “hope for the future” or as it later says when Athens saw it as ” it was much more about history being a kind of monolith, looking at these strollers as evidence of a cultural history that they were involved in in their own life”. What cultural history? Did the people of modern Athens build the Parthenon?

Arguably what the people who have seen this have built is empty baby strollers. Empty by means of “crack”. Empty by means of hyper-materialism that said kids are too much trouble, even if they never actively said that. Empty by means of abortion. The ironic twist is Amazing Grace playing on loop. The absence of children is in a way the absence of at least a grace. I doubt the artist would say that he was saying any of that, but Jesus said the stones would cry out. Even Caiaphas was a prophet. I’d say that work resonates because we recognize the law proclamation against us. We can see ourselves in it. The fact that we can’t actually put words to it in a coherent way says just how much vocabulary we have lost – a ghost haunting the exhibit.

Can you have a culture without the cult?

Here are two items that caught my attention.

This link uses the Sherwood Baptist movie franchise as a jumping off point. If you’ve seen Fireproof, Flywheel or Facing the Giants you have the idea. Lots of pointy headed types (like me) might find the story-lines trite, but what I would say is that they’ve gotten a lot better a lot faster than I thought they would. And they’ve done it without giving up their moral core. Where Flywheel was almost enough to make me wince, the second two were at least as good as any of the secular professional stuff shown on THE Family Channel. (Let me just say that it should be the non-family channel, or the how to redefine The Family Channel. This show, which infuriatingly parson’s wife actually watches, it the most trite unreal dangerous piece of propaganda I’ve seen in a long time.) I don’t exactly like things being sold as “christian”, but you’ve got to start somewhere. What I share or like is this vision:

Will the day ever come when a church produces a film that wins an Academy Award? Or a musical that wins a Tony? Or a collection of poems or short stories that wins a Pulitzer? I pray that day will come. But the point, of course, is to change the world and not to win its applause. For believers, there is always an audience of One, and that One is pleased when we honor him with the best of our talents and efforts and also when we participate in the redemption and re-creation of all things.

The second link is related. I think it is actually the opposite of the first insight. I want you to look at the direction of its argument. It starts out with something that is true – church is the most culturally and ethnically segregated hour in the USA. Some of that is due to church strategies (such as most church growth programing of like attracts like). Some of that is due to the fact of geography – we live where we live. Some of that is culture. Black church culture is strong and different. In the same way liturgical churches and non-liturgical churches are just different. But it starts with something troubling and true, moves to something true but not really troubling (does anyone really want to spend another hour of their life watching a screen?), and then gets to something (the point) really questionable – the real world accepts homosexuality, so the church should also as a means of lessening the culture divide. Then look at the author’s suggestions. You start with something that every pastor should already be doing but then regress into dropping theology (as if doctrine were something trivial) and finally consult the experts – your teenagers. [Yes there is a smidgen of truth in some of the lines – dropping theology is not actually what is advocated, instead moving to story theology, but that is usually done so poorly they are the same thing. Yes, kids can help you at times and you should know what they are reading if just to be sure it is not the cultural arbiter.]

So instead of creating something that interacts with the world, even if it is sub-standard right now, but we are learning, link two says drive all the way to where the culture is at abandoning teachings and principles.

Art interacts with the world and seeks to change it. Christians do not so much want to use culture as to make it. They don’t want to be the iPad people but the people who create the apps used on it.