Creative Intent, Part Two: Flowers and Sacraments

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[This discussion is continued from yesterday’s post by Russ, “Creative Intent: What Are You Thinking?”]

…your thoughts about the questions Russ raises are fascinating. I’d love to add something equally fascinating to the discussion but I don’t think I can. I don’t think. Here’s what I do think.

Art, like the artist, and like the Artist (capital A), is mysterious.

There are a few ways to look at it. Maybe art is meant to be appreciated and interpreted privately, in the confines of your soul, where its work is most potent. Trying to nail the meaning of a piece of art down can be, frankly, like driving a nail into a piece of fine art. It’s like handling fine china: the more you turn it this way and that, the more chance there is that you’ll chip it. We can get so carried away looking for the meaning of the dandelion that we have forgotten to delight the simple, unpretentious, serendipitous beauty of the flower itself. There is a kind of art whose beauty is in its plenteousness. It pervades our days and makes them brighter and more bearable. Ron, you mentioned elevator music in an appropriately pejorative sense. In another way, though, God’s beauty is also littered all about, and it makes splendid what would otherwise be mundane.

There are songwriters (Katy Bowser for some reason comes to mind) whose music isn’t meant to be disseminated but enjoyed. Some of Alison Krauss and Union Station’s music (the jamming bluegrass songs like “Little Liza Jane”, for example) don’t mean something in the heady, beatnik, pipe-smoking way. They’re just beautiful splashes of light in the world, made by sub-creators who were compelled to make the musical equivalent of God’s dandelion or waterfall or gazelle. (I think contemporary Christian music is sorely lacking in this department. We’re so burdened with wanting every song to change the world that we’re not bothering to try and change the sad guy on the eighth row’s countenance. It’s hard not to smile when you listen to Chet Atkins play “Centipede Boogie”.)

But there’s another way to look at art, and I’m mainly going to be thinking of it from a singer/songwriter standpoint. I want my music to communicate. What drives me to make music is that I’m lonely. I’m (very) happily married, I have three (very) amazing kids, a good church, great friends, and yet I sometimes feel as lonely as a bone on a sand dune. I have Christ’s spirit in me, I believe (deeply) that there is a God and that he knows and loves me. But I’m hammered with doubt, sin that shocks even me, inconsistency, and the deep ache in my belly that reminds me that this world has yet to be made new. When I write songs (not the kid’s songs or the funny songs; those are to me like those simple, pretty dandelions) I want those songs to call out into the darkness and be heard by someone. I’m crying out in the hopes that someone will hear, and answer, and that that someone who also feels alone will be comforted. I’m looking for a connection between me and the audience. When they respond, when they applaud or feed me with that intangible sense of graciousness that tells me that they see who I am and that they like me anyway, I feel joy. I feel satisfaction. I feel God’s pleasure.

When I first started playing concerts, I felt a sense of urgency with my songs. I knew that I didn’t have a CD for them to take home and live with, so I only had one shot to communicate what I wanted to say. I worked to make sure that the point of the song was understandable on the first listen. Having a record takes some of that pressure off because you know (hope) the folks will listen to the CD again and again and what may not have been clear the first few times will snap into place finally and the listener will experience that “Aha!” moment that I so love in my favorite songs by Rich Mullins, Andy Gullahorn, Randall Goodgame, or the Weepies. For that moment to happen, though, there has to be an idea that the songwriter is trying to communicate.

There are so many different kinds of art. Some art communicates beauty. It doesn’t aspire to anything more, and that’s perfectly fine. Other art strives to communicate ideas, beautifully. (Some art doesn’t really try to communicate anything, and is called self-expression. This to me is self-important and vain. To create something for public consumption without a thought for the listener, without meeting him halfway, is like babbling in a nonsense language about how no one pays you any attention.)

I don’t want to beat the dandelion analogy into the ground (though it’s not really an analogy), but I think that God communicates to us in artistically diverse ways, too. He communicates beauty to us for its own sake in nature. His goodness is expressed in this, his eternal power and divine nature, as Kevin pointed out from Romans. We can look at the things God has made and infer that he is good. Rich Mullins: “The thing that’s cool about music is how unnecessary it is. Of all things, music is the most frivolous and the most useless. You can’t eat it, you can’t drive it, you can’t live in it, you can’t wear it. But your life wouldn’t be worth much without it.”

But then, God also communicates ideas, beautifully. Communion. Baptism. Marriage. There is a poetry in his sacraments that communicates a specific revelation that a dandelion could not.

God knows that we are a hard-headed, forgetful people, so he pares down the analogy of the seed descending and rising again and gives us baptism. We are lowered into the water and are raised again in a perfect picture of both our death to our old life and our rebirth to a new one and the promise of our resurrection to come.

He knows that it is hard for us to believe that the story that happened two millennia ago is true so God gives us communion so that we might remember that it was real, palpable flesh and blood that Jesus sacrificed. He knows that we are hungry and need to be filled, that we need to be reminded in communion both that he is the king and that his outrageous love invites us to feast with him at his table.

His love for us is a sacrificial love, and we were made to be lifted up only when we lay ourselves down, so he gives us marriage. He invites us to be bound to him, and him to us, he teaches us about covenant and dying to self and abiding love and deep affection.

These two kinds of art–the flowers and the sacraments–communicate and express and create; they remind us that we are not abandoned; they can evoke sadness or gratitude or joy or sorrow; they enrich our days; they summon our thoughts to higher things, deeper things, holy things.

This is what art can do. What it should do.

The finest artists the earth has ever known have failed to come close to creating something as remarkable as a dandelion. Still, we fumble along, making because we have been made, tethering the worlds of our imaginations to earth in stories and pictures and songs, and our father in heaven is glad.

I don’t know if this answers any of the original questions, but there’s my left-handed, non-mathematical brain’s answer.

Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.


14 Comments

  1. Nate

    I think that that knowing God and being sanctified allows us to appreciate the truly beauty in life. It allows us to see sin as ugly and righteousness as beautiful. When I see a couple in their 80s who have been married 60+ years, it isn’t my lustful girl chasing flesh that allows me to think thats beautiful. It isn’t my give up easy flesh that makes me want that. It isn’t me at all. It is Christ in me.

    I’ve been thinking for a couple of weeks (or months maybe) that this same sanctification This same Christ in me allows me to appreciate art that is truly lovely and beautiful (Handel’s Messiah or Glacier National Park – there’s a mountain there called Heaven’s Peak…). And He allows me to see the ugly as ugly (for examply a garbage dump or the latest gangsta rap hit about murder, drugs and sex – not kind in the right context).

    All that we are in our flesh cries out and leads us to all that is ugly – to sin, indeed to Satan. But just as Christ rescues our immortal souls, he transforms our minds (Rom 12:2) and allows us, for the first time, to see true beauty (himself) as such.

  2. Profile photo of Russ Ramsey

    Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    Beauty for beauty’s sake seems to me to be one of the grandest, most glorious ideas out there– that there is such a thing as beauty and it doesn’t need anyone saying “Look, it’s beautiful!” for it to actually be beautiful and for the watching world to know it.

    There’s also something to be said for the “playfulness” of God’s creation too. Maple seeds didn’t need to fall to the ground like helicopters, but they do. So many things in creation are either beautiful or playful or both, and there’s very little explanation for this except that its just the way they were made.

    It’s God flexing.

    This is the kind of stuff He’s made of. And no artist on earth can touch it. And every so often the simplicity and playfulness of His handiwork bows the most serious artist low in reverence and awe.

    And then,

    And then He says, “Go and do likewise.”

  3. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Great post, AP.

    Lewis said somewhere something to the effect of “Art both means and is.” Whether art is flowers or sacraments, it’s intent is to communicate and to provide enjoyment of beauty. In listening to old time music and early bluegrass, what I hear is that at the same time that it was fun music, enjoyable music, dance music, it also contains a lot of depth and humanity; life back then as now wasn’t all fun and games.

    That’s what I find annoying about some kinds of Christian music. If art made by Christians doesn’t address the human side of things very effectively, it can’t effectively portray the God side, either. God is great, yes, greater than any problems we have, greater than any circumstance, and he orchestrates everything in our lives and means evil for good. But still, then there remains our inner reactions to the hard things in life. I read where John the Baptist’s head got cut off in prison. Jesus heard about it and split – he got by himself. I can only imagine how he felt, what he did, how he wept, because the record doesn’t say. But I know he was fully human, and I know a little bit about how I would feel.

    In life there is also fun, glorious fun and joy. Wrestling my son to the floor and tickling him. Seeing my daughter sing along with “God made meeeeee, like he made the seeeeeeeeeeea!!!” at the top of her lungs. It makes my heart glad.

    Music – a concert, or a recording – should make people smile. It should make them frown. It should make them laugh, and be glad, and cry. It should resonate with humanity. As an artist, that’s my job – to communicate human experience to the listener. I watch people at our band’s concerts. They go up and down on a roller coaster of emotions, because that’s what life is, and our songs are primarily about life. I look at our concerts as a two hour long question with the answer at the end; we end with gospel songs, usually A Living Prayer, as an encore.

    AP, that’s what your music communicates. It resonates with life, a human life, a human looking for the answers to loneliness, sin, pain, fear, and also finding joy, love, humor, and beauty in the middle of the looking. That’s our job as Christians and as artists. Many of the great hymns resonate with this duality of “how I perceive my circumstances” and “What really is true when I bring God’s sovereignty into the picture.” Art has to be real; that is, it has to come down to the human level. That’s why some Christian music seems plasticine to me. It does not clothe God with humanity. It presents him abstractly.

    Once again we’re back at paradox. We’re to preach Christ, but to be human. Jesus was fully God and fully man. God is one Being but three Persons. Music needs to be totally human and yet point people in the right direction.

    So – music needs to be received, like a rose. We see the rose, breathe it in, experience it. We’re meant to feed on beauty. And that beauty is there for the eating, and it there in the long run to point us to the one who is the origination point of all beauty.

  4. Kevin Beasley

    Enough said… Andrew, what ticks me off about you is that the complexity of your profound simplicity and beautiful imagery puts an end to self-indulgent “mathematical” reason like the braking system of an over-accelerated roller coaster at the end of a two-minute joy ride. (smile real big) (reminds me eerily of an old Ragamuffin named Rich) Thank you so much for the beauty of who you are and thank God for the beauty of how you see life. Speaking of Dandelions!

    I mean… “Trying to nail the meaning of a piece of art down is, frankly, like driving a nail into a piece of fine art.” Good Lord, how do you do that stuff!?!

  5. Stephen

    I love the idea of mystery…that God is mysterious, so much of Creation is mysterious, and art is mysterious. I still stand in awe of what happens in my soul when I hear certain songs or see that hummingbird outside my window or hear thunder. It’s mysterious and amazing and good. Things like that just remind me of how much Jesus loves me and how much my soul longs for him. Thanks for the discussion guys.

  6. Kevin Beasley

    His tall forehead… His inquisitive gaze… His busy hands and scurrying feet… The innocence of his soft skin and the glory of his stinky diaper… The way he’ll sit in his “thinking chair” and hold his book while watching tv for as long as his young brain can soak… His eyes lost in the activity of “Dora” and his sponotaneous giggle when she does absolutely nothing to provoke it… The bounce of his eyes from tv to book and back again… The anticipation of resurrection when he comes running for a hug and my realization that a hug is resurrection to him… Ten little piggies and ten to pick his nose… Art from the Artist for us to take in…

    Thank all three of you for reminding me that we are baptized in the water of His art and it is for us that we can join in His favorite activity, creating and re-creating.

  7. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Its important to make a distinction between the creative act and analysis of the creative act. Analysis happens in retrospect. Dorothy Sayers wasn’t trying to hold all the ideas of The Mind of the Maker in her head while she wrote her fiction and plays. It was in retrospect after years of creating that she wrote Mind as an exploration of what the creative act is.

    So analysis of the creative act is distinct from the act itself, just as art itself both means and is. We don’t have sex and try to keep in mind all the technical analysis of what it is; we simply experience it in real time, the sense-pleasure of it. In retrospect, later, analysis may help us to better that area of our life, to improve at it in certain ways. But analysis isn’t the thing itself.

    Analysis of what I do on guitar and banjo, singing and songwriting, helps keep me moving forward. It builds technique, and then I can use the built technique as a vehicle for my artistic endeavors. I sit and analyze my right hand with a mirror as I flatpick; “Is my wrist moving too much…let me try to add more arm motion – what does that feel like?” But that is not creating art; it is building the tools to create art.

    Analyzing the creative act has helped me in the same way. How can I write better songs? How can I make better records? But of course I can analyze all day and not actually create anything. And in a way that’s easier, because creating involves risk; analysis involves little.

    So distinguish between our analysis here and the actual act. They are two different things. As Lewis said on another subject, one is the map, and one is the actual country.

    I don’t like elevator music because I enjoy silence better. God has dandelions and autumn leaves scattered pell-mell but he also has vast deserts, which have their own stark beauty. Sometimes I want Banana Republic to musically model a desert rather than a line of dumpsters in New York City.

    AP, “We can get so carried away looking for the meaning of the dandelion that we have forgotten to delight the simple, unpretentious, serendipitous beauty of the flower itself. There is a kind of art whose beauty is in its plenteousness. It pervades our days and makes them brighter and more bearable.”

    That’s exactly why we must first receive the work of art as a child. We have to receive it, like breathing in a rose; we can always evaluate it later if we want to; we can study the parts of a rose if that fascinates us (and for some people, that kind of study is fascinating). But receiving the art is the first order of business, and maybe in many or most cases, the only order. Lewis talked about poetry the same way – it has a meaning, but also it sounds. The words should sound good together (like your lyrics). They just feel good on the lips. That’s the sensual pleasure of poetry. But I think again there’s paradox here; there must be meaning and not merely sensual pleasure; there must be sensual pleasure and not merely meaning. There must be God incarnate in human flesh. Your lyrics both sound and say. Music that merely sounds, feel-good music, may be good for working out, but it isn’t that great for in-depth listening. It has its place. But the best kinds of music incorporate both sides of the conundrum: it means and is. Great music feels good, is a sensual pleasure, is to be entered into and experienced. Sometimes a song stops there, and that’s good. But they can’t all stop there, or we’re being dishonest about our humanity and our search for meaning. And likewise, every song can’t be some sort of earth-shattering revelatory experience; that isn’t honest either, because life undulates from sensual pleasures to meaning, from desperation to satisfaction, from giggling to the death of someone we love.

  8. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    I’m currently making a record on a 16 yr old mandolin whiz named Sierra Hull. Making a record involves both spontaneity (the playing and overdubbing) and then analysis (“which pass of guitar or mandolin fills is best for this verse? Which vocal line is more emotional? Which one has better pitch?” Production is a constant game of bouncing back and forth between analysis and feeling, often utilizing both at the same time. If analysis has its head, and perfectionistic tendencies are allowed control, then the feeling of the record can suffer. There’s a balance to be found; vocals need to be at least close to the pitch; if they are full of emotion but the pitch is terrible, the listener won’t be able to hear through the bad pitch to the emotion of it. And the other side is just as bad; if pitch is perfect but there’s no life experience or emotion in the vocal, the pitch won’t matter. A matter of balance.

  9. Jim A

    Two thoughts.
    One: Rich Mullins said (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQnFU5JvuWY around 3:50) we should come to concerts for entertainment and if you want spiritual nuritionment you should go to church (and believe me Ron B, I was highly entertained when I got to see you and Allison Krauss at a small theatre stage completely by accident while on vacation in Boston). I’m looking forward to being “entertained” and get spiritually nourished by going to my church on the 30th of November and hearing Andrew P and friends perform here in Sugar Land. Thats a convient little loophole in Rich Mullin’s theory.

    Second: Aaron Tate said this so eloquently in verse back in 93 and I’ll post here one of my all time favorite Caedmon’s Call songs “Not Enough” below. In my mind this song has always been about the artists response to that “substance we cannot grasp” taking the form of “oil and canvas to be clay” that Christ used to open the blind mans eyes (reference to another of my favorites from CC – “All I Know”). I think very much art can be something, one mechanism, to help open the eyes. But as Rich says, once our eyes are open we need the spiritual nourishment from the Church body to help us grow in Christ.

    “Not Enough”
    I mount up with waxen wings,
    High to reach the sun.
    And I am no further than,
    Than when I first begun.

    So I build a mount of Athos
    To shape your form against the sky;
    With my home in your hands
    To show all the people why,
    To show all the people why.

    Everything I do,
    It’s not enough for you.
    Everything I do,
    It’s not enough, it’s not enough for you.

    In the garden of my pride,
    The lamented lime tree.
    Too stupid to cry for rain;
    fruitless and choked out by weeds.

    So I write a book of life,
    Using the best words I can find.
    For some struggler to snuggle up
    When the world becomes unkind.
    When the world becomes unkind.

    I find direction in east-bound clouds,
    And long for what they have.
    But when I step into its midst,
    Its substance I cannot grasp.
    So I paint a portrait of you
    As if you had human disguise;
    With oil and canvas to be clay,
    To open up their eyes,
    Like you opened up my eyes.

  10. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    I love Rich’s thought about music (and art in general) being frivolous, and even extravagant. I think that’s why it so often feels like Grace, which is also frivolous and extravagant.

  11. Laura

    First we may think dandelions are yellow flowers… then we may learn the rhyme to say when we flip the tops off… then someone breaks the news that they are weeds rather than flowers. We learn sometime later about oxygen and carbon dioxide exchanges, and one day we make the connection between the white seeds we blow and this yellow weed. The seeds, which appear dead, are buried and God raises them to life again.

    I think art and our spiritual walks are much like this. We stop a moment to look more closely to find it isn’t a yellow flower at all.

    We may live our entire lives assuming the world is as abundant with dandelions as the sod at our doorstep, only to go to the other side of the planet where there are Ganzeblumchen instead.

    In our human wisdom, we can think we have something all figured out, and that is just the time Jesus seems to tap us on the shoulder to teach us something new.

  12. Dan Kulp

    I have no problem with the blend from easy listening dandelions to complex sunflowers (fibinachi) or layered roses that keep you coming back and finding more each time.

    Each is art and audiences may gravitate towards preferences, and should be able to do so without malice/discontent toward the other side. Why can’t Christian artists have fun songs? They do, but they don’t get on the radio. (Okay rarely, Chris Rice with the voices).

    To me it also falls in with the variance between deep hymns and praise songs.

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