Tuesday, August 21, 2007

spiritual quest ... mission ... thing

I don't think it's exactly been a secret that I've been wandering through something of a spiritual vacuum lately.

To be frank, I haven't stepped inside church for about three months now. I drive the family there, drop the kids off in the Kids Church rooms, and then go for a walk outside, read a book in the hall, or even work on my laptop. For whatever reason, I've been finding the service itself like spinning my wheels. The sermon offers nothing I haven't heard before a thousand times, the worship looks like an artificially sculpted artifice intended to evoke a specific emotional response, and there's been few moments afterward for connecting with other people there.

In a sense, I've been looking for an encounter with God that I can say is real and that matters, and knowing that I can't return to church until I've found it.

I realize this isn't entirely fair to the church where I've been going, nor to the people there. It is, in many ways, a reaction to the sum of my experiences with Christianity, from the frustrating legalism of the Christian fellowship in college, to the inflexibility and prosperity bent of the Assemblies of God church I attended for several years, down to my deep disappointment with what happened to the last church I actually joined, and the three-year sojourn in the wilderness that followed. No one ever reacts to events in isolation.

When we discipline our children, we are reacting to behaviors we see in ourselves that we hope to stop in them, we are reacting to behaviors we see in our spouses but are unable to correct there, and we are reacting to siblings, friends and other people from our own childhoods. So it is with church. A person's action or chance comment triggers a response that is disproportionate to the immediate catalyst, but not disproportionate to all that has gone before. In a very real sense, I'm shaking off the legalism I've seen equated with godliness, I'm pushing to find the soul of a relationship with God rather than what other people say I should believe about him, and I'm searching for a reasonable level of expectation for my relationship with other Christians. (That last is perhaps more painful, because by and large we're very high on the amount of BS we spew about how much other people matter to us, but much lower on how much we actually care and want to be involved with one another -- myself included.)

It's not a question of belief in God, nor even of belief in the essential qualities acribed to God in the Judeo-Christian tradition. For me, at least, those issues are settled; I might as well take Descartes to take for assuming the existence of the thinker when he wrote Cogito ergo sum. I've come to accept that it's simply beyond the boundaries of proof, and whether by indoctrination, experience or revelation, I've come to the conclusion that God does exist -- or at least that I can't stop believing in him, even when I do -- and that for me the question is more one of, "How can I genuinely encounter and know God?"

I don't know about other people, but when I'm puzzling over a big question for a long time, my mind keeps walking down the same familiar paths until it's started to wear grooves in the walk and I feel like I know every careless weed beside the road, every weather-beaten fence post, and every fallen tree. And then, when I'm despairing that I've been down this way so many times that there's nothing new to discover, I find that the road continues when I thought it dead-ended.

So Sunday morning while everyone else was listening to the story of Jonah and its message of grace, I was thinking that I often encounter God in the act of creating art. As I write -- and to a lesser extent, as I draw -- I find a spiritual intimacy with God, a wonder, a level of knowing, a je ne sais quoi, that I don't find in church. That's because God is an artist himself, and part of being made in his image means being creators ourselves, expressing the little demiurge that lies within each of us.

My daughter Evangeline expresses that part of herself through actual artwork, through oils and watercolors, through graphite, pencils and blenders and other things I don't understand. I express it through words, by finding new perspectives on old stories, by using the word within me to bring order and form to the chaos we all live in. Even people who seem to have no poetry within their souls create order and form when they instill organization and create structure in the systems they work in, and those who are actually good at it (and not merely petty) can make something that is truly beautiful in how it runs.

And so it hit me that part of what's missing in my church is art. Which is really sad, if you think about it, because my church has tried to purposely include the arts in its services. We've had a couple dramas, I rewrote the Parable of the Good Samaritan for a modern audience, we've done interpretive dance, and sometimes we've actually had artists painting throughout the service ... but the last of these things was ages ago. It's not been a top priority, nor even a very high one from what I can see. It's been more or less something we do when we have the energy and the time to think of something, but not something we've been committed to on a regular basis in practice.

That's about when it hit me why evangelicals so often find art troubling or problematic -- it's precisely because it is a contact point with the Divine image. In my experience at least, evangelicals support art and storytelling within certain limited contexts. It has to be acceptable; it has to reaffirm their beliefs; and it not only has to have a message, the message has to be one evangelicals can get behind. Thus it's all right to make a painting of Jesus holding a slain firefighter with the U.S. flag fluttering in the background, but it's not acceptable to show Jesus holding an Iraqi soldier with the flag of Iraq showing. And it's better to retell "A Christmas Carol" so that Ebeneezer Scrooge learns about the birth of Christ, than it is to tell the story Dickens wrote, where he learns what it means to love his neighbor. Art for art's sake is verboten in evangelical circles.

And yet these conflicts are the very ones that Christ lives in: caring for those we consider our enemies, using our wealth to help those in need, and so on. We've worked hard as a church here in America to tame the lion in our midst, to twist art to serve our ends and give it "take-home value," and to make God meekly fit into our agenda.

I talked to the pastor after the end of the service, and shared what I had been thinking with him. I don't know what to expect, honestly. Tom's a good guy, and I believe he wants to make the arts a bigger priority, for the reasons I've enumerated above. But I'm frustrated, and I wonder how long this vacuum's going to last.

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