Thursday, May 9, 2013

Visual Art and the Sacred: On The Importance Of Museums

I just finished writing an essay about the day Picasso made me fall down.  I'm sending it off to my favorite editor, and if it's accepted, I'll post a link here.

The event I wrote about took place over two decades ago, when Picasso's Guernica was still housed in the Casón del Buen Retiro at the Prado Museum in Madrid.  (It is now in the Reina Sofia, in a larger but - in my opinion - far inferior room.  You can learn a bit about that here.)

New Acropolis Museum, Athens
Meanwhile, here's the upshot of my essay: education that's prepackaged and canned is not enough.  Education is not the same as transferring information.  It involves informing students, to be sure, but what we tell students should not satisfy them; it should provoke them to want more.  Professors are not conduits of data; at our best we are like guides and gardeners.  As guides we point students in new directions and help them to see what we see.  Just as gardeners cannot make seeds grow but can prepare the soil, so our teaching should be about increasing the fertility of minds and then stepping back to watch what grows.  Also, there is occasional weeding involved.

As an undergraduate I knew very little about art.  Part of this was my disposition: I liked representational art that was easy to look at quickly.  Part of it was a matter of my worldview, and the suspicion that some modern artists who eschewed representational art were trying to undermine something good, obscurantists clouding clear vision.

Time spent in museums has changed me a good deal, as has making the acquaintance of Scott Parsons and Daniel Siedell, who have helped me quite a lot through their patient conversation and what they have written.  (Scott and I wrote a chapter on teaching students about visual culture and the sacred in Ronald Bernier's short but illuminating book Beyond Belief, in which Dan also has a chapter.) Some of Makoto Fujimura's short writings, James Elkins's book On the Strange Place of Religion in Modern Art, and Gregory Wolfe's work at Image have also provided me with clear and helpful education about art that I resisted when I was younger.

Museums are certainly controversial.  Curators make decisions that both expand and limit what we see, and this can be exploited to achieve sordid political ends.  Some ideas and cultures are given preferential treatment while others are made less known by their omission.  They tend to be located in large, wealthy cities, which means that poor people, rural people, and foreigners have limited or no access to them.  But if the alternative is no museums, or all of the world's artifacts in private collections, I will take the museums we have, coupled with ever striving to make them better.

Because museums are a tangible way we can commit to remembering our history together.  Museums are not safe deposit boxes where we lock away our treasures; they are Wunderkammers and classrooms where we may think and learn together.

I have come to love museums, especially the British Museum and the beautiful New Acropolis Museum in Athens (and I'm aware of the irony of that pairing) but I also love the little museums I find in small towns the world over. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

What Jesus Didn't Say

My latest contribution to Sojourners' "God's Politics" blog.

Some reflections on the surprising encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman he meets at the well in the fourth chapter of John's Gospel.  Here's a little taste of the post:
"We can get a lot of attention in the media by self-righteous grandstanding, but wouldn’t it be better to follow the example Jesus sets here? Rather than telling people caught in desperate sin how far their sin has removed them from God, why not invite them to come to worship?"

Pornography and Prayer

A recent Wall Street Journal article talks about the way online pornography quickly develops new neural pathways that are difficult to undo. As the author puts it,
"Repetitive viewing of pornography resets neural pathways, creating the need for a type and level of stimulation not satiable in real life. The user is thrilled, then doomed."
Thankfully, "doomed" may be an overstatement.  As William James and so many others remind us, our habits make us who we are, so we may be able to form new habits to supplant or redirect old ones.  I'm no psychologist, but it seems obvious to me that what we hold in front of our consciousness will synechistically affect everything else we think about and do.   So it is no surprise that the author of this WSJ article reports that viewing porn may lead to viewing women as things rather than as people.

To put it differently, everyone worships something, and what we worship changes us.  This is one of the good reasons to engage in prayer and worship that are intentional. (On a related note, it's a good reason to forgive, too: forgiveness keeps us from internalizing the pain others have caused us, where it can fester and devour us from within.)

(If you read my writing with any regularity you will recognize these as themes I frequently return to.  If you're interested, I've written more here and here.) 

One of the problems of philosophy of religion has been to try to identify that which certainly deserves our worship.  This quest for certainty has often (in my view) distracted us from the more important work of liturgy, wherein we acknowledge our limitations, including our uncertainty.  A good liturgy involves worshiping what we believe to be worth worshiping, while acknowledging our own limitations.  After all, if worship doesn't include humility on the part of the worshiper, it is probably self-worship. 

Another way of putting this is in terms of love.  Charles Peirce wrote about this more than a century ago.  There are many forms of worship, many kinds of prayer.  Without intending to demean the prayer and worship of others, Peirce nevertheless offers what seems to him to be worth our attention: agape love, the love that seeks to nurture others:
"Man's highest developments are social; and religion, though it begins in a seminal individual inspiration, only comes to full flower in a great church coextensive with a civilization. This is true of every religion, but supereminently so of the religion of love. Its ideal is that the whole world shall be united in the bond of a common love of God accomplished by each man's loving his neighbour. Without a church, the religion of love can have but a rudimentary existence; and a narrow, little exclusive church is almost worse than none. A great catholic church is wanted." (Peirce, Collected Papers, 6.442-443)
Notice that Peirce uses a small "c" in "catholic."  He wasn't trying to proselytize for one sect; quite the opposite.  He was trying to proclaim the importance of a church - that is, of a community that shares a commitment to communal worship - of nurturing love.

I am not trying to moralize about pornography.  In fact, I see some good in pornography, just as I recognize goodness in the aromas coming from a kitchen where good cooking happens.  Pornography probably speaks to some of our most basic desires and needs, for intimacy, affection, attention, and love, as well as our simple, animal longings.

Still, like aromas from a fine kitchen, porn stimulates us without nourishing us.  And by giving it too much attention we may be training ourselves to scorn good nutrition.  The WSJ article suggests giving up the stimulation as a means of getting over it.  I think this is incomplete without a redirection of the attention to what does in fact nourish us.  Prayer and worship that refocus our conscious minds on what really merits our attention can prepare us to receive - and to give - good nutrition.  That is, by shifting some of our attention from cherishing need-love to cherishing gift-love - from the love that uses others to the love that seeks their flourishing - we might make ourselves into the kind of great lovers our world most needs.