Beyond Charlie Sheen: Evangelicals Enriching Culture?

The recent 24/7 media coverage of Charlie Sheen’s unraveling has been a daily reminder of American culture’s impoverished condition.

Sixty years ago evangelicals set out to create a richer culture, abandoning fundamentalism’s combativeness and choosing instead to engage in a more thoughtful participation in America’s cultural life.

It has been a bumpy ride and nowhere has that been more evident than in the arts, where instead of contributing to the mainstream, evangelicals have for the most part written music, books and created art that lucratively engages their own sub-culture, but has little or no influence on culture at large.

That may be changing as evidenced by last week’s gathering of the International Arts Movement (IAM) in Tribeca, where the potential and possible pitfalls of this resurgence of interest in the arts among evangelicals was on display.

It may be news to some, but some evangelicals have earned the right to be heard in the mainstream artistic world. Chief among them is Mako Fujimura, a highly respected practitioner of the ancient Japanese art form of nihunga and the founder of IAM.

This being IAMs’ twentieth anniversary it is clear that evangelical interest in the arts is not in it’s infancy and that evangelicals have come a long way. There are still some want-to-be artists in the mix and some evangelicals are still engaging in hand-ringing insular conversations, but for the most part the conference consisted of thoughtful presentations by accomplished thoughtful artists like Bruce Herman, Bobette Buster, the Storling Dance Theatre and others.

There is every indication that evangelicals are thinking more deeply about culture. Roberta Ahmunson’s Til We Have Faces, was a tour de force lecture imaginatively and intelligently exploring the portrayal of faces in the visual arts from earliest times through to today. Dutch philosopher, Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin, reflected on how art, a pre-reflective enterprise, has the potential to help us see and make sense of things, providing hope, empathy and compassion.

IAM’s mission is “to engage the world that is and to create the world that ought to be. This phrase lacks the imperialistic chauvinism sometimes heard among evangelicals and is refreshingly open to voices in and outside of Christian circles.

Throughout the weekend, artists were encouraged to be creative catalysts who make generative and re-humanizing work. The vocabulary was fresh, provocative and unitive, providing a much-needed path for a wider dialogue about the role of art among religious and irreligious alike

The metaphor of culture as a stream evoked environmental images quite useful in identifying the similarity of the artist’s role in caring for our shared cultural estuaries with that of an environmentalist’s work of earthkeeping. Scientist Calvin DeWitt reminded artists that the nearby Hudson River, one of the world’s largest estuaries, was once threatened with pollutants but has been carefully restored to health. The inevitable question was, can our cultural estuary similarly be restored to better health?

Given my bias that such a restoration requires a synergistic rekindling of intellectual, spiritual and creative vitality, I was pleased that the opening and closing plenary sessions featured interviews (conducted by me) with world-class poets whose Christian roots are outside of popular evangelicalism.

First was poet Li-Young Lee, who brought a sense of reverence and awe for the mystery of the transcendent through his well-crafted verse. Our conversation centered on the majestic vision, deep seriousness and heroic ideal of Lee’s poetry.

In the final plenary session I interviewed Dana Gioia (rhymes with joy-a), the former Chair of the National Endowment of the Arts. A renowned poet, essayist and editor, Gioia may be the closest thing to a renaissance man of letters alive in our country today.

Brilliant and erudite, Gioia is also man for the people, not content for the arts to be held captive by either a superficial entertainment culture or the elite. Aware of the limitations of entertainment culture to satisfy our soul’s deepest yearnings, Gioia urged young artists to broaden their appetites for the theater, symphony, opera and dance, to enjoy jazz, and to read. Furthermore he challenged them to create a richer culture by aiming higher in their own work.

For those who think our culture can and should be richer and more uplifting than it is, IAM is maturing into a place where thoughtful creatives willing to grapple with the transcendent can find a community and a collaborative home.

 

Posted in Staublog in March 9, 2011 by | 1 Comment »

One Response to Beyond Charlie Sheen: Evangelicals Enriching Culture?

  1. 030911 | Dick Staub on March 9, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    […] Given my bias that cultural restoration requires a synergistic rekindling of intellectual, spiritual and creative vitality, I was pleased that the opening and closing plenary sessions at IAM featured interviews (conducted by me) with world-class poets whose Christian roots are outside of popular evangelicalism. Read More. […]

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