Singing in the Wilderness

music, art and life at saint benedict’s table

This essay originally appeared in Creating Change: the arts as catalyst for spiritual transformation, edited by Keri Wehlander and published by CopperHouse Books, 2008.

When imagination fails doctrines become ossified, witness and proclamation wooden, doxologies and litanies empty, consolations hollow, and ethics legalistic. (Amos Niven Wilder, Theopoetic)



n much of his written work, and perhaps most notably in an essay entitled “Rethinking Church Models through Scripture,”, the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has argued persuasively that as was the case for Israel in exile, the key task for an increasingly marginalized church is that of re-texting the community in its foundational – and often subversive – narratives.  I actually wonder to what degree we have really faced the reality that the church in many quarters has not only declined numerically, but has also been deprivileged?  That, to borrow another image from Brueggemann, the church has been moved from judge’s bench to witness stand, where we’ve found that we are but one in a whole series of others, all waiting to give witness in an increasingly pluralistic society? The truth is that we are no longer a key societal arbiter of what is right or true or good, but one of the many voices asking to be heard.  We are in a situation analogous to Israel in exile – though our move into exile has not been marked by that level of violence and upheaval – wherein our language and our practices are not echoed, carried or supported by the broader culture; certainly not in any significant way.

This business of re-texting is such crucial work, yet do we invite our artists, our singers, our poets, to immerse us in our own narratives in such a way that we might hear them and see them and know them anew?  Do we call on these folks to undo us, break our hearts, and help us to see with fresh eyes?  Or do we insist instead that they behave, and give us only that which reinforces all we think we already know?  Why has Thomas Kincade, with his paintings of quaint cottages and lighthouses, been deemed the artist of choice in North American evangelical subculture, and even christened the “painter of light?”   He may paint a nice little lighthouse, but it has nothing on a piece like van Gogh’s “Starry Night; a painting which seems to actually project its own light.  And what about what is sometimes called the “J-factor” in the Christian pop music scene?  That is the number of times an artist uses the name of Jesus in a song, and it is actually one of the things that the industry has traditionally looked for when it programs for radio, with an adequate number of invocations of the name of Jesus increasing a song’s viability in that particular market.

It is possible, of course, to come up with examples of material that doesn’t fit here:  the music of Bruce Cockburn or Sufjan Stevens, the novels of Graham Greene or Frederick Buechner, the poetry of T.S. Eliot or Lucy Shaw; and thank goodness there are such examples… but the fact is, this is the cluster of artists and writers who almost always leap to mind.  They are a distinct minority.

And again, how could we possibly think it wise to attempt to shape a Christian church without reference to the poetic and artistic imagination?  Without telling- and telling it in all of its oddness – the story that in fact shapes us?  Not a partial, tidied up, edges-sanded-off polite version of the story; the whole works.

Calvin Seerveld, a scholar in the field of philosophical aesthetics, writes:

What really has given ‘christian art’ its bad name has been the cheap way that stock motifs such as conversions, happy endings or Bible phrases are popped in like vitamin pills to pep up one-dimensional, outdated material which is then sold as ‘Christian novels,’ Christian plays,’ or Christian songs.’  Using Christ in that way is, in my judgment, taking his Name in vain.  You do not get the rare pearl of Christian art by dubbing in a few crosses or chalices, or by draping a good-old-days kind of atmosphere around a trite plot.  Christian art in our days, I believe, will take suffering to produce.

It will take suffering to produce?  Suffering?  Who is going to sign up for that?  Yet for the artist who is a Christian, maybe it is not so much a case of signing on as it is being simply prepared to do one’s art authentically.  When, for instance, a major record company suggested to the singer/songwriter Steve Bell that that he would be more marketable if he didn’t sing all of those psalms, he basically had to confront the fact that psalms are what he does; to trim the faith out of his music would be to truncate himself, both as a person and as an artist.

In the words of Walter Brueggemann,

… an alternative world is possible.  The old world is not a given; it is a fraud.  Another world is possible – in our imaginations: we listen and imagine differently.  In our liberation we entertain different realities not yet given in hardware, so far only very soft ware, carried only by narrative and song and poem and oracle (and I would add, by painting and sculpture and dance and, and, and…) said before being embodied, but said and we listen.  As we listen we push out to the possibility and are held by it like a visioning child with a dream.

And from imagination comes practice; not just personal practice, but communal, public practice which from time to time actually manages to do something real and lasting.

I’d push Brueggemann, though, on his image of the “visioning child with a dream,” because sometimes the re-texting – our re-immersion in the narratives which give us our shape – which our poets and painters offer is more like a nightmare, or at least a forceful wake-up call.  To draw on the insight of the songwriter Bruce Cockburn, we need our poets to teach us new ways to see, and that isn’t always a pretty or comfortable thing. So why, then, do we keep using the arts for little more than glorified sermon illustrations?  Music as the emotional tag that gets us opened up for the preacher?

Is it possible to create the kind of Christian communities wherein the poets are listened to, nurtured, and supported?  In real ways?   What might it look like to take seriously the church’s deprivileged and exiled status, and to begin to rise to the same challenge which faced Israel in its exile in Babylon: that of re-texting the community.  Re-texting our communities, and  not only with the preached word – which is something as a preacher I’m pretty committed to – but also the word painted, sculpted, sung, chanted, filmed, danced, performed and offered in every way imaginable… literally imaginable!   Most churches, including my own, have a full time preacher and a part-time musician, but why don’t we have a poet or a painter on our staff?  A writer in residence?  A film-maker?  A director?  A choreographer?

In this Christian vision, suggests Seerveld,

…art and literature as human activity is not simply a harmless pleasurable emotion or a cultured response to unconscious drives which is the artist’s own business: this vision takes art and literature and brings it firmly into the presence of God and an earthshaking drama where angels peer expectantly over the human shoulders to see what is coming out of the palette or typewriter.”

And the angels peer expectantly because they know how deeply we need to be re-immersed in our foundational story; how badly we need to be fundamentally and imaginatively re-texted; how powerfully we need to relearn how to sing the Lord’s song in this increasingly strange land.

Admittedly, our community of saint benedict’s table hasn’t yet taken the step of freeing the resources for a resident artist or poet, but we do try to make room for the artists among us to share their various visions.  We have twice now held unjuried weekend long art exhibits, celebrating the visual artists of our community.  On both occasions we rented gallery space in our city’s arts district, and opened the exhibits with prayers of blessing and with wine and cheese receptions.   On both occasions close to 20 people contributed pieces, ranging from photography and painting to sculpture and installations.  We look forward to mounting another such exhibit, though we are determined to do so only as the desire arises from our circle of artists.  To get caught in the trap of having to do something annually simply because we’ve done it twice before… that is a trap to avoid.

We have also incorporated the gifts of several of our visual artists into our liturgical life; Helen Lyons has donated a set of prints of her original Stations of the Cross, as well as pieces of pottery for use as communion vessels; Lola Eidse has gifted us with a series of hand lettered and illuminated seasonal “liturgy cards,” which are colour photo-copied and distributed as our basic “prayer book.”  Others have loaned us pieces of art to be used for a Sunday or for a season, and these serve (along with our more conventional icons) as points of visual focus in the liturgy.

Drama is something that we have not yet really explored, though given that we include in our community several people with at least some theatre background, there is some interest in at least exploring our options.  We do not, however, imagine that this would take place as a part of our regular Sunday liturgy; a liturgy, incidentally, that we would understand to be, among other things, a drama offered to the glory of God by the whole gathered community.  There has been some discussion with Calvin Seerveld about mounting a production of his The Greatest Song: in critique of Solomon, which is a dramatized and sung re-reading of the Song of Songs.  Again, were we to mount this work – and Dr Seerveld is hopeful that we will – it would not be as a sermon-aid or as a piece of didactic drama, but as a work of theatre to be shared in the context of our city’s arts scene.

The one area in which we have taken significant steps is that of music, and specifically music for worship.  We do have a staff musician, a journeyman bass guitar player named Larry Campbell, who is paid a stipend of $8400 a year for what is, at least in theory, a one day a week position.  Rather than serving as the typical worship music leader, the staff musician’s role is to coordinate, support and mentor the musicians of the community; it is, in a real sense, very much both pastoral and liturgical in scope.  With Larry’s support and guidance, there are currently five different ensembles on the roster for worship leadership (only one of which he actually leads), and each is given all but complete free reign in the choice, development and even writing of music for the liturgy.  I say “all but free reign,” in that each works within the boundaries of the liturgical calendar and the lectionary, and all are shaped by the ongoing question of how their music aids this community in its life of worship.

To give some sense of how this latter question really informs all that we do in our liturgy, it is significant to get a picture of how our space is configured for worship.  At no time do the musicians play to the congregation; their role is always to play with.  Our community shares space in All Saints Church in Winnipeg, an 80 year old building of neo-Gothic design, configured with a high altar, chancel and rood screen, with fixed pews seating 450.  A few rows of pews have been removed from the front, giving us enough room to lead worship from the area at the foot of the chancel steps. We use a small carved oak table as our altar, and our musicians play seated off to the side, oriented with the community toward the table.  They are amplified, but only to enhance their ability to lead the community in its worship.  It would be considered a problem were the music to be so loud that people in the general congregation found it hard to sing.

Having unleashed and freed our musicians to explore writing new music for use in the liturgy, we have been almost overwhelmed by what has been produced.  In fact, within the first year of our formal establishment as a congregation in the autumn of 2004 we were in the planning stages for the production of a CD of original music, which was released as “We Will Not Be Silent” in January of 2007.  This seems to have led to a kind of consolidation of our musical vision, in that several of our writers have become increasingly comfortable in exploring their various musical voices; new music is produced in response to the seasons and readings on a regular basis, and we’ve now built up a pretty solid repertoire of material specifically written for our context.  It has also produced a seven song “extended play” single CD by Jenny Moore-Koslowsky – one of our truly inspired and inspiring writers, now relocated to England for school –  entitled “Songs for listening to on the train with an excellent set of headphones and an ambivalent heart.”

In many respects, it is the freeing of the musicians to find and express their voices in and for the community that has created such a creative environment.  That “freeing up” is deep and thoroughgoing; it invites the musicians and writers to help us to find the voice to say what we all need to say, but have not yet ourselves found the words or the melody.  We know they are there, but we need the singer – the poet – to first give them voice.  Witness this reflection from Jenny Moore-Koslowsky:

I go to saint benedict’s table because I do not have to have faith to participate in faithfulness.  I attend because someone reads scripture for me, because someone prays on my behalf, because someone else makes the meal.  I have often felt like it is insane that I offer music, or ideas, to such a monumental liturgy, but I don’t feel as though I make the words, or form the songs.  You make the songs, we each bring the music, I just ask you to sing it out with me – to sing what is already in us, what we have already discovered, survived, kept hidden and become.  It has been a privilege to write songs for a community that never denies their own weakness, never gets enchanted by their own thoughts, and never gives a damn how many people show up.

One or two of our initiatives might turn out to be good ideas for other church communities to adapt to their own contexts, and if that is the case then more power to you.  More to the point, though, I am convinced that every church in every community across the continent will sooner or later need to take seriously the place of imagination in reconstituting ourselves as a re-texted, and thus story-formed, people.

This is the singing of the Lord’s song in a strange land, in a language both old and new.  But without the willingness to try – again – to give voice – again – we are caught in the same despair as Israel courted in Babylon as its poets hung up their harps and vowed themselves to silence in face of the chaos of exile.  But can we do other, than to try to make space for such voices?  To return to the quote from Amos Wilder’s Theopoetic that appears at the top of this essay : “When imagination fails doctrines become ossified, witness and proclamation wooden, doxologies and litanies empty, consolations hollow, and ethics legalistic.” Can any of our communities afford to not learn to sing the Lord’s song in new and imaginative ways in this increasingly strange land?

© Jamie Howison, 2008
This article incorporates material from an address delivered at Telling the Truth ’07: a conference on the arts and the worshipping church, held in the fall of 2007 in Victoria, B.C.

Walter Brueggemann, “Rethinking Church Models through Scripture,” Cadences of Home (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997, pp. 99-109. Brueggemann, “Life-or-Death, De-Privileged Communication,” Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), pp. 20-21. Calvin Seerveld, Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves (Toronto: Toronto Tuppence Press, 2000),  p. 17. Walter Brueggemann, “Preaching as Subversion,” Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), p.  17. Bruce Cockburn, “Maybe the Poet,” Stealing Fire, True North Records 1984. Seerveld, A Christian Critique of Art and Literature, p. 16. Amos Niven Wilder, Theopoetic (Lima, Ohio: Academic Renewal Press), p. 2.

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