Art and Storytelling · Art As Conversation

Focus on Loving the Craft

Naomi Shihab Nye
Naomi Shihab Nye

The poet Naomi Shihab Nye was the guest reader at Gannon University‘s (where I teach) English Awards night recently. Like most poets, she shared anecdotes between each poem. But she didn’t change her posture or the tone of her voice to ready herself or establish a boundary between her life and her poetry. What pause there was seemed natural, like the pause your uncle takes before telling another story at your family reunion. One hardly knew where her storytelling stopped and her poetry reading began. She extended her personality through her creative work, both through her products (her poems) and the process of reading them.

I approached her afterwards at the book table and shared my observations. She said, “You know, I’ve been criticized for that.” I said, “You don’t adopt a different persona to read like so many poets do. How you read pulled me into the poem because you’ve established a personal relationship with me.” She put her hand out, “That means we’re friends.” I took it and replied, “That could be dangerous, you know.” We laughed.

I’m sure Naomi Shihab Nye, throughout her illustrious career and worldwide travels, has shaken lots of hands and laughed with many fans. But in that brief drop of time, both during her reading and our chat afterwards, I learned about a means of self expression that isn’t narrowly narcissistic. Naomi’s self expression extended a hand to touch an audience.  She extended her artist’s personality into and through her creative work.  The highest form of “self expression” focuses on the craft, not the artist, because the artist is lost in her love of the craft.

Naomi Shihab Nye loved her craft more than she loved herself.

That’s the kind of “self expression” I can emulate.

Art and Knowing · Art As Conversation · Power Of Symbols · Uncategorized

“Noah:” The Film and the Horror of Creative Liberty

"The Raising Of The Cross" Rembrandt
“The Raising Of The Cross” Rembrandt

Many Christians are horrified that Darren Aronofsky’s film “Noah” isn’t “according to the Bible.”

Was that the director’s goal? What does “according to the Bible” mean, exactly? If we insist artists tell a literal story, we would never have the The Last Supper, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or the mosaics in some of our great cathedrals. You could add any number of paintings, symphonies, poems or other works of art.

Rembrandt took “creative liberty” when he painted himself in “The Raising Of the Cross.”  Of course that isn’t a literal rendering of the sacred event.

But if Rembrandt is there, maybe I am too.

We don’t know if the Pietà shows what happened between Mary and Jesus after he died. Does it matter? The sculpture brings me to tears. I’m a mother of a son. Even if you aren’t, doesn’t its creative and symbolic power grab you and speak emotional and spiritual truth?

The "Pieta"
Michelangelo’s “Pieta”

You can argue that “Noah” doesn’t come close to Biblical notions of the man Noah. Worse, the film portrays a God quite different from the God of the Bible and that’s where you draw your line. Fair enough. (Even the examples I used, “The Raising Of the Cross” and “Pietà” have some connection to Biblical narratives.) But does the film deal with universal truths? Does it ask questions about sin, redemption, or the consequences of our choices? Does it show how a specific portrayal of God shapes art and how we view it?

Of course, I’m not putting “Noah” on the same level as the masterpieces I’ve mentioned. You might think I’m defending it. My goal is to use the film, whether you see it or not, as an opportunity to discuss our assumptions about the relationship between “art” and “truth,” and how artistic expression speaks to our faith—or not.

Agree? Disagree?

Art As Conversation · Creativity of Language

Evelyn Underhill and the Language of the Mystics

We don’t use the word “mystic” much in contemporary Christianity.  I think a major reason is that “mystical” brings to mind long flights of emotion, even ecstasy, or getting lost in a spiritual moment, kind of like my experience when the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl a few years ago, all except for the spiritual aspect.   Steelerslogo

OK, back to real mysticism. (You mean football isn’t a religion?) How about trying the Lora Zill definition:  getting lost in the presence of God.   How do you describe that experience to others, or better yet, to yourself?  What kind of words do you use?

Sometimes we have an almost mystical experience when we encounter nature, such as when we see a multicolored sunset or a double rainbow, perhaps, and try to capture and describe our feelings by using the words “awesome,” “cool,” or “beautiful.”

Evelyn Underhill

But somehow those words seem totally inadequate when describing an encounter with God.  I don’t know that I have an answer, really, because I, too, grasp at straws sometimes even while writing this blog.  And I’m not trying to describe a mystical experience, just my own walking on this earth, with some “God” thrown in.

Speaking of mystical and mystics, you’re probably wondering about Evelyn Underhill since I led off with her name. She was a 20th century mystic that I have just recently come to know through her book, The Spiritual Life.  A friend “just thought” I would like her.  If you call stopping my reading every few pages so I wipe tears from my eyes “liking her”, I guess I did.

So, let this blog serve as a brief introduction to Evelyn Underhill and mystical language. I’ll be sharing more in the next few weeks, so stay tuned.  Looks like the 2013-14 football season won’t lead to mystical experiences for Steeler fans, alas, so I’ll have to “settle” for mystical encounters with God.

Art and Storytelling · Art As Conversation · Feeling God's Pleasure · Trust Issues · Uncategorized

Whose Line Is It Anyway?

I’m not very good at “improv” games.  I’ve heard it said that writers usually aren’t because they’re trained in careful, disciplined choices of language and “improv” encourages spontaneous dialogue and interaction.   “Improv” doesn’t have rules, or judgment, or make room for “error” because there isn’t any.  There are no criteria to live up to or judge by.  The only requirement is the willingness to participate and openness to spontaneity.  "Improv"

But it takes courage to play “improv.”  You have put away self-consciousness, trust yourself and the other players, “be present” in the moment, and follow the process where it leads.  It’s also not a “secret” process or one accomplished in your prayer closet.  It’s out in the open, public, usually with an audience who participates and responds by approving (or not) through clapping, hooting, laughing, friendly yells, yawning in boredom or checking their cell phones.

I am a good audience for “improv.”  I usually catch a joke, or see the possibility of one when it wasn’t intended.  I laugh well.  But I can also see where I can add some “improv” to my life.  I can recognize the many areas of life where I can be spontaneous and make decisions purely for the enjoyment and pleasure they offer.  Not everything in life bears a heavy moral or ethical dilemma or is reason to be “outraged.”  I’ve blogged about Eric Liddell and feeling God’s pleasure.  Maybe it’s time for me to discover more of my own!

Art As Conversation

Sandberg, Art, and Asking Questions

I haven’t read Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will To Lead (Knopf) yet, but it seems a nice segue from last week’s thought on “leaning in” to a conversation.  In her online discussion guide based on the book (, Sandberg asks a lot of questions for women to consider about leadership, gender roles, success, and raising children, among many others.

Sandberg’s goal in questioning was to begin a conversation. Today in his sermon my pastor challenged the congregation to ask questions about women in ministry and participate in the ensuing conversation, even if we didn’t agree.

Jesus asked a lot of questions.  “Who do you say that I am?”  “What is the greatest commandment?”  “And if I tell the truth, why do you not believe Me?”  We think that if we can give the “right answer” we’re safe.  “Whew!  I’m a good spiritual test taker!”  I wonder if Jesus was less interested in the “correct” answers than he was in having a conversation that would challenge and change our thinking to align with His goals and purposes.

Art has a part to play in that conversation.  Art begins with asking a question.  What does hope look like?  How can I connect faith with an eagle, not soaring above me, but sitting in a swamp?   How do I write about auditory sensations, like Yeats’ “lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore” and use the sounds of language to draw an audience into the line?  When we ask the questions, we had better be ready to participate in the conversation, beginning with God first, then ourselves, then our audience.  Sounds like we’ll have some great dialogue.

Art As Conversation

Apollo’s Fire and Conversation

This spring I attended an Apollo’s Fire concert with friends near my home.  “Apollo’s Fire” (Cleveland Baroque Orchestra) plays music from that era on period instruments.  Baroque string instruments use gut strings and produce a mellower sound.  The harpsichord is a major contributor, as is the wooden flute, the traverse.  Six musicians, a softer sound, and a smaller venue gave the concert an intimate feel.   The full house wasn’t overpowered by the sound, and the performers’ brisk movements invited us to “lean in” and actively listen and internalize the sounds like we would in conversation with a friend.

I think art is a conversation. We artists get ourselves into trouble when we forget that.  When “self” expression is the chief end of art, our work is “self” centered and we wonder at the small audiences at poetry readings and gallery openings.  Some artists end up talking to themselves.  Some writers write and have no audience.   I tell my writing students that nobody cares about their self-expression.  Readers want to react to a work that is crafted in ways they can relate to and understand.

When the musicians moved into the familiar opening measures of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, it was like seeing the face of an old friend across a room after a long absence.  Ahhhh….You anticipate deep conversation and soon are totally engaged.

How do we invite our audience to a conversation through our art like Apollo’s Fire did through Baroque music and superior musicianship?