Stumbling Blocks

I recently read the book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans. As I did not know much about the author, I did a little online research on her. Among other things, I learned that Held Evans died tragically and unexpectedly at the young age of 37 from complications involving allergic reaction to medication. I also learned that I think I would have liked her, and am now curious to read more of her writing.

As is not surprising when looking up anything remotely involving religion online, I found widely polarized opinions about her. For example, an article from a conservative religious website claimed Held Evans was leading people to hell for daring to harbor and express doubt. (To put things into context: This same website condemned contemporary Christian singer Lauren Daigle for NOT condemning homosexuals.)

On Goodreads, reviews for Inspired tend to be raves or rants. In the latter category, one reviewer went on at length about what he or she considered Held Evans’s flawed theology, even putting the book on a “false teaching” shelf. (The possibility that this person’s own theology might be flawed is apparently out of the question.) Near the end of the scathing review, comes this line: “I advise readers to not eat up every book they read as true, but to examine everything with care and in light of the scripture.” In other words, scripture itself is not to be questioned nor is this person’s interpretation of it. I would like to advise the reviewer “to not eat up every book they read as true, but to examine everything with care,” INCLUDING scripture! (I opted not to engage in argument in the Goodreads comments.)

This highlights a very real problem for Christianity. How does a tolerant person deal with intolerance? How does someone willing to harbor doubts and ask questions confront someone who would never entertain the possibility of their own fallibility?

If you want to find ways to weaponize the Bible, it’s not hard. Want to keep women subjugated to men? Plenty of justification for it in scripture! Want to condemn homosexuality? Got it covered! Support for slavery? Too easy! Xenophobia, genocide, polygamy, incest? Check, check, check, check. Any pet prejudice can probably find support someone in the Bible, given the proper spin (sometimes requiring very little spin at all!)

For those of us who want to follow the Jesus we hear preaching the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7), this poses a stumbling block. It is hard to support the Christian church when so many of its loudest voices are those preaching intolerance, bigotry, and hate. It’s hard to admit to being a Christian when so often the church has come down on the wrong side of history. How does one stay inspired?

What I Did For Love

My first exposure to A Chorus Line was in junior high. I was the accompanist for the school chorus, and one of the pieces I vividly remember was a medley of songs from the musical. The first time I actually saw the show was in its movie incarnation. I loved the music, and enjoyed the performers, especially Gregg Burge (gone too soon at age 40 in 1998). I couldn’t understand why my theatre friends hated the movie so much.

Like pretty much everyone who only know the show from its songs, I figured “What I Did for Love” was just another pretty love song. That how it felt in our junior high medley. That’s how the movie played it. It wasn’t until I finally saw the stage show that I really understood the song.

The show takes place on a bare stage, and the entire plot is a group of dancers auditioning for a chorus role in a Broadway musical. Sounds simple enough, but it takes us on an amazingly intricate journey through life as seen through the eyes of the dancers and the director/choreographer, Zach. One of the show’s most moving moments is when Paul recounts his painful experiences growing up, and his relationship with his father. (I won’t spoil it for you here; see the show!) It is heartbreaking when not long after his revelatory monologue, Paul is injured and has to withdraw from the audition. The other dancers are shaken up about this, suddenly forced to confront their own fragility and the unforgiving nature of their chosen career. Zach asks them, “If today were the day you had to stop dancing, how would you feel?”

That’s the moment fellow dancer Diana Morales begins to sing “What I Did for Love.” It’s not a he/she love song as I’d always assumed, as it was in the movie.

“Kiss today goodbye
And point me toward tomorrow
We did what we had to do
Won’t forget, can’t regret
What I did for love.”

This goes beyond romantic love, as wonderful as that is. In the context of the show, “What I Did for Love” goes to the very heart of your soul. What in your life do you truly do out of love? What do you love so much that you can never regret it, even if you lose it?

I played in the pit orchestra for this show a couple summers ago, and the experience moved me deeply for a few reasons. First, it brought back all those memories of junior high chorus. Second, as someone who has spent a lot of time working in music and theatre, I can understand the emotions of the dancers giving their all for a shot at Broadway. Lastly, I think of my own life, and of the things and people I have loved and lost.

“Look, my eyes are dry
The gift was ours to borrow
It’s as if we always knew
And I won’t forget what I did for love.”

(A Chorus Line, Music – Marvin Hamlisch, Lyrics – Edward Kleban, Book – James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante)

My Only Mission Trip

Proud church-goers tend to wear their mission trips like badges of honor. My one and only mission trip happened when I was a kid. I didn’t, and still don’t know how it came about, but one summer our church became involved in an exchange program with an Indian tribe, and several of us got to go to Cherokee, Oklahoma and live on an Indian Reservation for one summer. (The Indians were not Cherokee, by the way, but Comanche.) I’m calling them Indians, because at the time that’s how we referred to them. It’s how they referred to themselves. No one worried about being PC, and the term “Native Americans” was not yet in vogue.

Turns out, summer on the reservation was fairly primitive. We lived in a tiny church, slept on wooden pews, took care of privy matters in an outhouse, and brushed our teeth and bathed by hand pump. Another non-PC term we adopted: “Indian Time.” If one of locals said something was going to begin at 7pm, that meant sometime after supper but before sunrise the next morning. “I’ll get to it soon” could mean ten minutes from now, or ten days. Life on the reservation was just not as rushed what we were accustomed to. Our first example of Indian Time came on the second evening. The loosely scheduled entertainment was to be a real pow-wow. Pow-wows look exciting on TV westerns, but this one was an excruciatingly long and dull affair – with bad food.

Most of that summer was an excruciatingly long and dull affair. The highlight of the day, every day, was when the train came by in the afternoon. We kids would hear the train in the distance, and drop whatever we were doing – which was usually nothing – and rush to pile any bits of interesting trash we could find on the tracks to watch it get crushed. Chains made from soda can pull-tabs were a favorite. (I’m dating myself; who remembers pull-tabs? To put things into context: Leisure suits were still in style, and the big hit that summer was “Renegade” by Styx.)

We spent much of our time making up stupid lyrics to campfire songs, most of which were not suitable for family ears. Since it was a church trip, we decided we should have an official hymn. The hymn thus honored was “The Old Rugged Cross,” to which we did not know all the words, so we substituted our own:

On a hill far away
Stood an old rugged cross
An old rugged cross on a hill
And that old rugged cross
Was an old rugged cross
And that old rugged cross is still rugged!

We sang this frequently, and by “frequently” I mean incessantly – enough to become very annoying to the adults present.

My two prize souvenirs from Oklahoma, aside from some smashed trinkets, were a turquoise pendant and a tiger eye claw on a chain. I lost the pendant early on, but I wore the claw around my neck intermittently for many years. When I was 19, it fell off its chain and broke on the hard kitchen floor of the pizza restaurant where I worked. The train-track trinkets had long-since been thrown away. Things get lost, but not memories. My friend Spencer was along on that trip. Not long ago, after not seeing or hearing from each other for over thirty years, we met up by chance in a crowded theater lobby, where we entertained our embarrassed wives with an impromptu rendition of “Old Rugged Cross.” And yes, that old rugged cross is still rugged.

Engaging With Doubt

Growing up in a church with a strong liturgical tradition, I used to be annoyed by the repetition of the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. As the congregation mumbled through call and response prayers, I was sure I could detect the same unthinking recitation in the voices around me that I was feeling myself. I enjoyed singing hymns because I would challenge myself to try to sing a different part of the SATB hymnal arrangements on every verse, but I rarely felt the message of the lyrics

Now I attend a church in which liturgy plays a very minor role in our Sunday service. This in spite of the fact that our church’s Reformed denomination supposedly follows a number of creeds (Wikipedia lists 22.) Curiously, I find that I miss those liturgical elements. Maybe it’s the comfort of familiarity I miss. Maybe it’s the link to the past provided by a traditional worship service. Maybe it’s simply that I’m not wild about the contemporary Christian praise songs that have pushed the old hymns aside.

Or maybe it’s that the doubts that often made me feel hypocritical when reciting creeds are not being given anything to push against. Even though it sometimes felt like I was coasting through creeds and prayers on autopilot, one of my quibbles with mouthing someone else’s words was that I didn’t always believe them. Ironically, the thing that most kept me engaged, whether I was consciously aware of being engaged or not, was doubt.

In the April 20, 2010 issue of The Christian Century, there is an interview with Nashville songwriter David Olney in which he says, “There’s a lot more doubt than faith that goes on with me, but I just can’t dump the whole thing. It’s much harder to do that than to accept it on some level and just bite my tongue in a church service when the Apostles’ Creed is recited.”

Rachel Held Evans says nearly the same thing in her book, Inspired: “There are days…when I mumble through the hymns and creeds at church because I’m not convinced that they say anything true.”

Cynicism, of which I have certainly been guilty, is not helpful. It is a kneejerk dismissal of whatever I’m hearing or reading. Doubt is more nuanced. It allows for the possibility that what I’m being asked to believe may be wrong, but it also admits that I might be the party who is wrong. Doubt is not afraid to ask questions. When I feel doubt, that is a signal that it’s time to pay attention. I need to let the question in. What’s more, I need to listen for the answer with an open mind, especially if it’s an answer I don’t expect or don’t want to hear.

Identity and Specialization

Okay, after two flashback posts I am now back to the present. Obviously my interests include art, religion, reading, and running. This blog provides a platform for me to indulge in all four. It might make more sense for me to separate these subjects into their own blogs, but one of my goals is to find and build connections. Heaping a variety of topics together makes sense in light of this goal.

Of course connectedness can be taken too far. Balance is important. Just as over-homogenization can lead to blandness, over-connectedness can lead to over-specialization. Think of the Borg in Star Trek. “You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.” The Borg terrify us because individual identity disappears as each recruit’s “biological and technological distinctiveness” becomes just another cog in the Borg collective. We’ve seen this dehumanization most clearly in factories following the Taylorism model (brilliantly parodied in Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times), but also in two other trends: (1) the pressure to blend in, and (2) the pressure to specialize.

America has been called a melting pot of culture, and that description has taken some heat. Not everyone wants to melt into one uniform bisque. Some would prefer to think of America as a stew, in which many ingredients come together but each retains something of its own characteristic while at the same time adding to the taste of the whole. In my own family, languages that were spoken as recently as two generations ago have been lost. Any hint of my German, English, Dutch, Norwegian, and Bohemian ancestry has been assimilated into a homogeneous North American gruel. It’s a shame that more of the flavors of the home countries haven’t been retained.

It is also a shame that society, and especially the job market, today is rigged against the Renaissance person. The jack-of-all-trades is frowned upon as a useless generalist or dilettante. A polymath is someone who might be good at Jeopardy but little else. In our race to specialize, though, it is easy to forget how closely connected we are, and how our actions have repercussions outside of their immediate spheres. My desire is to forge a unique identity while maintaining an awareness that I am part of something greater.

I think science must consider ethics. I think religion must acknowledge history. I think entertainers and athletes (sometimes the line between the two is blurry) must recognize their role as influencers. I think politicians should look at both the micro and macro, the short and long terms. And in the tiny scale of this blog, I think it’s okay if I mix art, religion, reading, and running into one stew.

Or maybe this is just an elaborate rationalization for my inability to focus on any one thing.


Formal Analysis of Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s Portrait of  Madame Grand (Noël-Catherine Verlée, 1761–1835), Later Madame de Talleyrand-Périgord, Princesse de Bénévent


Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Portrait of  Madame Grand (Noël-Catherine Verlée, 1761–1835), Later Madame de Talleyrand-Périgord, Princesse de Bénévent

Madame Grand (Noël Catherine Verlée, 1761–1835), by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun is a French oil on canvas painting from 1783. It is a representational portrait, highly natural both in color and light, and somewhat unusual in its oval shape. The subject of the portrait is a young woman, elegantly attired, and sitting on a heavily saturated dark green velvet sofa, with her arm resting on a matching green velvet pillow with gold trim. The background is solid black. Though close inspection reveals some cracking of the paint and/or varnish, the painting appears overall to be in excellent condition, with no noticeable loss of color or yellowing of the varnish.

The woman is shown from her waist up, with just the top of her lap shown. She is wearing a silvery blue dress, with long sleeves but showing an ample expanse of bosom.  There is a large light blue bow in her hair atop her head, another just below her chest, and one at her waist. The bows echo the blue of her eyes, which are looking up toward her right in a dreamy fashion. The dress appears to be silk or satin, with a sheer wrap around her shoulders. The simulated textures of the smooth satiny dress contrast with the velvet of the sofa and cushion. The greens and blues are cool colors, giving the painting a calm appearance. Her skin is pale but healthy and smooth, with rosy cheeks. The lightness of her skin, especially her chest, stands out against the green sofa and black background.

The point of view is straight on; the picture plane could be a window or mirror.  The woman is perfectly centered in the oval. Her head is approximately three-fourths of the way up the painting, right about where one of the foci of the oval would be. Her right elbow is out to the side, with the sofa back and cushion on that same side, giving the painting a slightly asymmetrical appearance. She is holding a piece of sheet music in her right hand, where the lower focus point of the oval would be.  Her head and the music thus give the portrait a vertical symmetry. The light appears to be coming in at a slight angle from her upper right, where her eyes appear to be gazing.

The focal point of the painting is the woman’s face. She wears an expression of amused boredom, with her eyes looking up to her right into the light, and her glistening rose-hued lips slightly parted in a near smile that Mona Lisa would envy. A row of perfect teeth is barely visible behind her lips. Her hair is light blond, brushed into an extravagant halo around her head, and falling in curls past her shoulders. A curl on her left side hangs teasingly onto her exposed chest, nearly reaching her barely concealed bosom. Her hair looks as soft and puffy as the cushion beneath her elbow. Though our eyes want to briefly follow hers, inevitably we are drawn back to her well-lit face, neck, and chest. The lighting is mostly even. Shading is most evident along the woman’s left side, and in the ribbons that adorn her hair and dress.

The oval shape of the frame gives this painting an intimate feel, with no sharp corners. The oval shape also matches the woman’s pleasing oval face. The curved top of the sofa back is yet another rounded line. Even the sheet music is curled slightly, mimicking the curls in her hair. The artist’s signature can be faintly made out following the curve of the sofa’s gold trim. In short, this is a beautiful portrait of a young woman who knows she is beautiful. Nevertheless, she maintains an air not of haughtiness, but of relaxation and humor.

Flashback: Interdisciplinary Artwork

When I read things I wrote in years past, I usually cringe. Here’s an edited piece from ten years ago; it’s almost tolerable:

Interdisciplinary Artwork

The arts are blending all around us today. Pop concerts utilize huge video screens, dancers, and a mix of live, sequenced and recorded music; websites contain graphics, sound, animation, and interactive elements; DVDs include text resources in addition to video; even “books” can now be electronic ebooks, with or without multimedia content. Artists can create sound and light sculptures. Performance artists mix spoken word, music, movement, and visuals. Interdisciplinary art abounds!

This is nothing new. Stage productions have been combining artistic disciplines for decades, even centuries. Words, music, sets, make-up, and costumes all contribute to the play. Ancient Greek dramas were frequently accompanied by music, and actors used large masks for visual effect. The biblical Pentateuch is filled with instructions for elaborate ceremonies designed to stimulate all the senses – artisans, architects, and performers would all participate in what were certainly interdisciplinary events. As much as the various art forms might like to consider themselves divorced from each other, a glance across cultures and through history shows them often joining forces.

Some of the oldest known art is part of an interdisciplinary approach. Episode 4 of the PBS documentary “How Art Made the World” features “Storytelling Aboriginal Style.” Aboriginal paintings, some over 40,000 years old, were just one part of events called “Dreamtime.” These events used music, dance, and storytelling to recreate myths important to Aboriginal culture. The power of the tales, as reinforced by this ancient soundtrack has enabled the stories and ceremonies to last right down to the present day. Elaborate tales are reenacted to the sound of singing, percussion, and didgeridoo, and surrounded by rock paintings of the key images. Performers wear makeup, body paint, and costumes.  The artwork depicts icons easily recognizable to anyone in the culture, relating to these Dreamtime tales.

The work of artist Keith Haring, has often been compared to primitive iconography. Haring’s well-known images, such as his barking dogs and radiant babies appear over and over in his work. Like the Aborigines, Haring often worked and displayed to music, this time an urban soundtrack of rap, New Wave, and punk. His art debuted on fashion stages and nightclubs and in subway stations. The images take on deeper meaning when the viewer can associate them with their original intent in their original setting. This example of modern art hearkens back to some of the oldest known art in the world. The longevity of Aboriginal art and ceremony is evidence that art means more when it has definite meaning attached to it. Furthermore, that meaning is enhanced by the addition of interdisciplinary elements like music, dance, and storytelling.

Interdisciplinary art may seem cutting edge, but it can trace its lineage back to the birth of art itself.


Faith and the Comfort Zone

I recently wrote about stepping outside of my comfort zone (Take Me Out to the Ball Game). In his book Holy Grounds, Rev. Tim Schenck writes, “Faith demands we face and overcome fears and suspicions of things that take us out of our comfort zones.” I say amen to that!

Take the oft-quoted John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” (KJV) This is one of the bedrocks of the Christian faith, that Jesus sacrificed himself on the cross so that my sins would be forgiven. Just about everything about this takes me out of my comfort zone.

First off, it doesn’t make sense. I like things that are neat and logical, and this just sounds crazy. Why would God do something like this? It sounds like a terribly roundabout way of doing things. Didn’t he have any better ideas? How does that work anyway? What possible connection could there be between Jesus’s death on a cross 2,000 years ago and my sins today? How do I manage to get eternal life out of the deal? The very concept makes my brain hurt!

I’m also more than a little uncomfortable with the whole business because it sounds too fantastic to be true. We are always told, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” Well, that certainly fits the scenario here! Eternal life? Really? Even though I in no way deserve it? I’m naturally wary of any deal this one-sided, even if—especially if—it is entirely in my favor.

Furthermore, I didn’t ask for it. Jesus did it for me anyway. We are unaccustomed to any act of over-the-top generosity. Most of us can’t honestly fathom the idea of going to a horrible death for a stranger. How much less would we be willing to die for a stranger who won’t even be born for another two millennia. I’m uncomfortable with that level of self-sacrifice. If there was ever a gift capable of inducing overwhelming guilt, here it is!

Faith is not only accepting the gift and accepting that it happened as told in the Bible, but accepting that it really is as wonderful as it sounds. “Faith demands we face and overcome fears and suspicions of things that take us out of our comfort zones.” John 3:16 takes me way out of my comfort zone. I am suspicious of it because it defies logic. I goes beyond anything I have come to expect in the world. I fear that I am unworthy of such love, and that I might lose it.

Then there is this to consider: Elsewhere in the Bible we read, “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” (Luke 12:48, KJV). I would say everlasting life qualifies as “much.” Faith demands that I overcome my fear of the much that may be required of me. I must leave my comfort zone.

Reading Broadly

In my last post (Take Me Out to the Ball Game), I mentioned getting stuck in a reading rut. I read a lot, and enjoy many different genres of fiction, especially science fiction and classic literature. And yes, I also read a lot of juvenile and young adult books; adults who think they’re too old for J and YA books are missing out on some great reads! For non-fiction, I tend to turn toward history, theology, and philosophy.

This sounds like a nicely varied diet, but even so, I sometimes need a nudge to read books I might not otherwise pick up. To help find that nudge, this past year I joined John Green’s online book club, Life’s Library. I have also partnered with a friend to start a book club at our church, in which we explore books that challenge our thinking about religion, and deepen our understanding of faith and its place in society.

John Green, himself the author of several acclaimed young adult novels, urges his fans to read broadly, and to think about issues and other people complexly. We all like to read periodicals and blogs we know in advance we agree with. We find it comforting to turn again and again to favorite authors. There’s nothing wrong with doing either of these things, but doing so exclusively can result in a narrowing of the mind. When so much of our information comes from social media whose algorithms carefully filter out content with which we might disagree, it is vitally important to follow Green’s advice and actively seek out a wide variety of sources and opinions.

Here are a few ideas on how to do that:

  • Visit your local library. Wander some aisles you normally avoid.
  • Make friends with the people who work at an independent bookstore. Ask them for suggestions.
  • Join a book club.
  • Get involved in the conversation at Goodreads.
  • Browse some book review sites:
  • Little Libraries are popping up all over the place. Next time you pass one, look inside and pick up a book that piques your interest. And remember: While I don’t recommend giving up on books too quickly, it’s okay to abandon a book if it’s rubbing you the wrong way or just not striking your fancy. But again: Sometimes it’s good to at least give a fair hearing to an author with a point of view different from your own.

Happy reading!


Take Me Out to the Ball Game

We have a Triple-A minor league baseball team based here in Des Moines, the Iowa Cubs. They are the farm team for the Chicago Cubs. The ballpark is very nice and easy to get to. Parking, in spite of what some people will tell you, is easy, as it is everywhere in Des Moines. (I’ve lived in Chicago, Boston, and New York, so when Iowans complain about parking in Des Moines, I just laugh.) Tickets to games are not expensive, every seat in the house is good, and food options are varied and tasty. There’s even a booth where you can get some excellent beer from Iowa’s microbreweries.

In spite of all these positives, I rarely to go to games, mainly because I have convinced myself that I’m not the kind of person who attends minor league baseball games. But last night I saw how wrong that assumption is; ALL kinds of people attend minor league baseball games. I went with my wife and a friend of hers, and the three of us had a great time. I began the night with a breath-killing hotdog smothered in onions, sauerkraut, and mustard. A few innings later I had some corn on the cob and three small but loaded street tacos (with more onions). In the 8th inning, I washed it all down with Burnout Brown beer, made in the nearby suburb of Ankeny by Firetrucker Brewery. The Cubs eventually lost to the Round Rock Express in the 10th inning, after which there was a short but good fireworks show.

All of this is to say that I’m glad I pushed myself out of my small comfortable circle last night. It’s so easy to fall into a routine that feels safe and steady, and so easy to define myself in a way that limits me. The older I get, the more I tend to fall into these traps. Left to my own devices, I listen to the same music, read the same types of books, travel the same route to and from work, eat the same foods, do the same things, and associate with the same people. There are so many opportunities to break away from routine, and I am happier when I do. This morning I’m listening to a Spotify playlist featuring mostly bands that are unfamiliar to me. And my wife and I are already planning an evening out to see a Des Moines Menace soccer game. Even though I’m not the kind of person who attends fourth tier soccer games.