Carolyn Givens

Carolyn Clare Givens works in Communications at Church at Charlotte in North Carolina and does freelance writing and editing. A displaced Northerner now exploring the foreign ways of the south, she has previously bumped around the world, both as a missionary kid and as an adult. She revels in good stories, good music, and wrestles with the intersection of faith, art, vocation, and culture. Online, she hangs out at her website, carolyncgivens.com, on Twitter, and at her page on Facebook.

From the Archives: The Art of Baseball

“Baseball unites heaven and earth: it inscribes a pattern of clean lines, orbs, and diamonds upon the dust from which we were formed and in which we toil, and the lush green in which we find rest. Upon that heaven-and-earth field, prodigal sons set out on barren base paths; and we watch and wait to see if they will make it back home.” –David Mitchel1

Something there is in the Creator that doesn’t love a straight line. He framed boughs of trees with crooks and angles. He crafted winding rivers and undulating landscapes. His cathedrals are formed in groves of trees, set out in imprecise circles and ovals, branches bumping into one another overhead. His curves are not regular; His arcs are not clean.

We created beings find loveliness in these things, but when it comes to drawing our own lines or sketching our own arcs, there’s a certain satisfaction we discover in clean lines and perfect angles. The Greeks aligned their pillars in parallel formation. The Byzantines built their rounded domes. The Golden Mean was the Renaissance measure of beauty. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim spirals. Our most daring architecture is still perfectly curved, our tables level, the pickets of our fences parallel. While there is a piquant charm in the bow of a sagging ridgepole or the meandering lumps of a fence built of native stone, there is also great beauty in the straight lines of a highway in the desert or the perfect arc of a flying buttress.

It is baseball season once more, and spread before us are the clean lines and perfect angles of a ballpark. The lights are held high on steel grids. The seats wrap around in even furrows. The grass has stripes and measured designs in it. Perhaps there’s a bit of the faerie in the groundskeepers, for they manage to make magical things out of a broad field using only shades of green. At each corner stands tall a straight, yellow foul pole. And inside the quasi-geometric shape that is the field, there is an arc, a diamond, and – perfectly centered within it – a circular mound. The ballpark’s lines are straight, its curves measured.

Upon the stretch of tawny dust and verdant grass we lay out our white lines and square bags. The umpire brushes stray dirt from the white pentagon before him. In his hand he holds the white sphere wrapped in neat, red stitches. Ninety feet for each baseline, sixty from the pitcher’s mound to home plate. A nine inch circumference and one hundred and eight double stitches. We strive for perfection as we map all this out. We erect our foul poles in parallel formation. We draw the chalk in perpendicular lines and anchor the bags at right angles. We order the stripes on the grass in even checkers. We endeavor for faultlessness. And we call it good.

To make our straight lines, our measured curves, our perfect spheres, we humans are forced to use tools. We cannot do it without them. The architect must have his drafting table and his protractor, his straight edge and his T-square. The builder needs his level and his measuring tape. The groundskeeper needs his mower and his roller. We need our compasses and rulers. In order to make such pristine beauty, we must remove ourselves a step from the act of creation.

In so doing, we succeed in our undertaking. We had to measure, but our curves are regular. We had to use tools, but all of our lines are straight. Yet upon these lines we build for ourselves, we live out lives of a more uncertain aesthetic. When the players stand on the diamond, they mar the white lines. The perfect sphere is thrown in imperfect arcs or lines that dip and break. Runners dodge tags, shifting from the direct path of the baseline. Outfielders scatter irregularly across the green. Batters wobble after missed pitches. There’s a collision at the base.

Using our hands alone, we cannot form perfect spheres. Something there is in these fingers that doesn’t love a straight line. Without the tools, our art – our living – is inexact. It comes out lopsided and knobby. The art we create to tell the story of being human is messy: dark shadows contrasting with shining rays of light. Uneven lines and haphazard moments. It has eccentric turns and curious corners. And perhaps this is precisely what it means to be human, shaped in the image of God: we find beauty in the measured curves and clean lines, but our lives look more like the winding rivers and the angled branches. We are forever caught in this, endowed by our Creator with a tendency toward irregular angles.

We’ve heightened the irregularity, twisted and broken even the undulating landscapes of our lives. Prodigal sons all, we do not by nature paint ourselves lives of clean lines and perfect angles.

But imago Dei can be redeemed. The prodigal can make it back home. The broken branch can be bound up and restored to its angled existence. And in this redemption, we are offered the chance to see the throne room of heaven, with its lovely straight lines and rounded pillars.2 We glimpse the sixty cubit nave and the twenty cubit vestibule.3 We catch sight of the inner sanctuary, where once the ark of the covenant was set, now the dais upon which the King of Heaven’s throne is stationed. And we see perfection. And we see beauty.

We live a contradiction as we walk through our lives. We find ourselves reveling in the radiance of the forest cathedral, noting the way the light plays with the leaves, dappling the ground with shadow and light. And we feel at home, seeing our own irregularities in the uneven spacing of the trees around us. But at the same time we want to clear away that one bough that makes the tree look funny, and we build our ballparks and our skyscrapers – our cathedrals and our fence posts – with clean angles and straight lines, vaunted arches and measured curves, because we’ve glimpsed perfection. And for the redeemed imago Dei in this world, there may be no way out of this trouble. It is our state, and we must live in it.

Paint the straight lines upon the golden dust. Mow the stripes into the green. Stretch the arcs and measure the angles. Hold the red-stitched sphere and clear the plate. There is a beauty in these things. But upon the field, play the game as it is meant to be played, with its highs and lows, its shadows and glories. Set out as a prodigal but return home as a son. Throw the breaking ball or the knuckler. Be living art. For on the field, heaven and earth unite, and in this the Creator is glorified.

 

1 Mitchel, David. “On Baseball.” http://morningatthebrownbrink.wordpress.com/2013/04/01/on-baseball/. 01 April 2013.

2 Hebrews 8:1-2 indicate the Tabernacle and Temple, with their strict measurements and straight lines, were patterned after the throne room of heaven.

3 1 Kings 6:2-3

 

This piece was originally published in 2013.

photo by: Matt McGee

The Bible Quiz Subculture

When my parents moved back to the States after living overseas as missionaries, they made a deliberate decision to put my sisters and me in public schools. As full-time Christian workers who came from Christian families and would be attending church regularly, putting us in public schools would at least mean we—and they—knew some people outside the Christian “bubble.” Now, as an adult who has worked primarily in Christian ministry, I find myself continually grateful for that decision. Without it I could easily wrap myself in the Christian world and rarely engage with those who do not believe as I do. Instead, I regularly interact with old school friends who help me remember that the world I live in is a subculture within American society. They remind me that in their eyes, I’m weird.

The evangelical Christian world is full of words, phrases, practices, and ideologies that are familiar and comfortable to me, but these words and ideas are increasingly unfamiliar to the culture around me. A recent article in the Boston Review exemplifies this. The author writes of a supposedly new movement taking place there, something the evangelicals call “church planting”a centuries-old Christian practice. But to the author the idea is entirely new. She lives squarely in post-Christian culture. Meanwhile, I’m left trying to figure out how to engage with a culture that speaks a different language than I do. The strangeness of my subculture hit home when I watched the documentary Bible Quiz, directed by Nicole Teeny, currently available streaming on Netflix.

The film focuses upon Mikayla Irle and J.P. O’Connor, two members of a Bible quizzing team competing to win a spot in the national tournament. These teens, to some extent, represent both those within and those outside the subculture—and in their interactions we see some measure of what conversation between “in” and “out” could be.

For the first 20 minutes of the film I kept thinking, It’s no wonder people think evangelicals are crazy. Some of us memorize thousands of Bible verses and then get together and compete in tournaments against others who have done the same.

Then another thought struck me: How is this any more strange than thousands of people dressing up like superheroes and gathering to talk about comic books? Don’t get me wrong: I think ComicCon is amazing; I’d love to attend one day. But I have been to a Bible quizzing tournament, and yeah, it tends to be a weird gathering of a bunch of slightly geeky teenagers getting together to rattle off long passages of the Bible. What’s so bad about that?

Bible Quiz raises that question in a non-abrasive manner. The film walks the line between condescending and saccharine, and captures a lovely coming-of-age story as Teeny follows Mikayla through the quizzing season. In part, the documentary format lends itself to the balance. Side by side with the teen girl talking about still having her “lip-ginity” (she’s never been kissed), Teeny shows Mikayla taking her younger teammate out of the hotel for a walk through Green Bay’s 4th of July celebration to escape “Bible Quiz village” and “get out with the…heathens.”

Unlike JP and the others, Mikayla doesn’t quite fit the Bible quizzing box. One of her coaches, Rich Nelson, says, “In all my kids I’ve had, I’ve never had a quizzer do well who didn’t have a mother and father at home, married.” Mikayla, on the other hand, recently moved from the custody of her alcoholic mom to her dad, who at best is vaguely disinterested in her Bible quizzing.

But Mikayla is on the team in part because of the genuine kindness of the team members. One reached out to her and asked her to come, telling her that it was okay that she didn’t have anything memorized, she should just come by for practice. “They continued to show me this love that I didn’t feel like I was getting at my house,” Mikayla says. “They have no idea how good they made me feel…I wanted to be with these people all the time. I never wanted to leave.”

“I really don’t care about Bible Quiz that much,” Mikayla says, hushing. “But I do care about my team.” Teeny’s film makes us care about them, too. Wisely, she often places her viewer in Mikayla’s shoes—slightly on the outside of the group. We watch JP in the bubble, born and raised, and he’s such a typical teenager—but he jumps on board and welcomes Mikayla in. So, like Mikayla, we find ourselves wanting to be a part of this strange subculture full of kids who memorize whole books of the Bible. Because along with that, they also love one another and support one another—and that’s something worth being a part of.

Bible-Quiz-1

I was on a Bible quizzing team with my church in middle school and found myself reliving those days with some nostalgia as I watched Teeny’s film. But more than nostalgia, I found that she managed to capture my experience growing up in the “Christian bubble” and display it without ire or mockery.

One powerful scene takes place when various quizzing teams are visiting Seattle’s Public Market and stop to listen to a street performer playing guitar. When he finishes playing a song, a girl says, “Praise Jesus for music!”

“Oh, don’t do that!” the man says, “Be an atheist and be smart.”

“Oh, but I love Jesus,” the girl replies.

“I’m sorry you must believe in a man’s religion like that,” says the man, “it’s kind of pathetic and sad. How can you say that God is a man? How can you say that God is anything? Your best religious experience can’t be named in words and it’s pathetic to try. That’s why the Bible or any other book is inadequate.”

There are a few awkward looks among the teens, and then the girl responds: “I strongly disagree!”

Others chime in, “Me, too.”

The man begins to play again, and the girl tries a parting repartee, “Jesus died on the cross for you. ‘Cause He loves you that much. Even when you don’t believe it.”

I remember being that girl: knowing what I believed, and knowing that I deeply believed it, but not having the tools or experience to be able to express that belief well. I rarely encountered people who were antagonistic to my faith and most of my non-evangelical friends were at least somewhat religious—whether Catholic, Muslim, or Hindu. We didn’t talk much about faith. Beyond them, my circles consisted of church, my parents’ ministry coworkers, and other Christian friends.

The scene between the girl and the street musician is powerfully punctuated by a visual: as most of the teens stand around awkwardly listening to the man play, Mikayla leans forward and drops a dollar into his guitar case.

We are all products of our subcultures. We all know the lingo and norms that brand us as part of subculture x. That’s the nature of culture. To someone who is outside of our subculture, we can look pretty odd, whether we’re gathering to dress up like superheroes, starting a church in a school auditorium, or getting together to compete in a Bible quizzing tournament. Interacting outside of our own bubbles is challenging, but sometimes it means simply taking the time to listen.

In the end, Bible Quiz is a story about a group of teenagers. They are still discovering who they are and how they want to do this thing called life. Mikayla, the outsider, has a less rose-colored view of the world than some of the others. As the team goes their separate ways after competing in the national finals, JP says, “We’ll stay in touch,” and Mikayla replies, “Perhaps.” She recognizes that this team was valuable to her, that she was part of it for a time.

I wonder what JP thought when he watched the film. According to the title card at the end, he went on to study biblical literature and become a pastor. Does he look back at the high school senior he was and shakes his head a little bit? He was an excellent Bible quizzer and a budding theologian, but he could have learned a bit about being a Christian from Mikayla. She says in the film, “He didn’t understand that I wanted to tell him my life story. I kind of knocked and no one answered that door.”

My Facebook newsfeed often looks like a shouting match. People in every camp want their memes and blog posts and news articles to be louder than the others. Bible Quiz reminds us that, in all of our shouting at each other, we may be missing the sound of a knocking on the door: the small voice of someone who might be quietly asking to be heard. We may be missing a chance to listen to the life story of someone who doesn’t quite fit in our box, but who could, if we’d just listen, make us a better version of ourselves.

The Ice Bucket Challenge

I remember standing in line at the drugstore with my mom one time when I was in high school. They were having one of those fundraisers where you give a dollar, and you write your name on a paper tag, and it gets taped to the wall behind the register. The wall was filling with white paper tags. The clerk behind the register began to check out my mom’s purchases. Before she finished, she looked up at my mom and asked, “And would you like to donate a dollar toward ALS research?” I could tell my mom had been ready with the quick negative response we’re all so good at giving those poor register clerks, but at the question, she paused. A beat. Then, “Yes. I will.”

The moment has stuck with me ever since. My parents were always generous donors to many individuals, missions, and charities. They gave regularly through our church. But the moment at the cash register was rare. It wasn’t often that I saw them say “yes” to that kind of request for a cause.

And I knew why the yes had been said. I knew what the pause meant. Those three little letters had made all the difference: ALS.

This one was ours.

***

My grandfather died of ALS when I was just over a year old.

I barely knew him, of course. I don’t have any memories of interacting with him. But I’ve got the photos of him in a chair, holding me as an infant. I remember the story of when my cousin, about eight months younger than I, was introduced to him. My uncle and aunt asked Grandpa if he wanted to hold my cousin. Grandpa looked down at his arms, then back up at them.  “I’m afraid I’ll drop him,” he said.

I had lunch with Grandma last week. She’s been widowed for over thirty years now. She started talking about those final months with Grandpa, about the conversations they had. Conversations about whether she should consider getting married again. About how she would make it financially without him. About how his illness would progress. About how he would die.

I remember watching The Pride of the Yankees a few years ago and experiencing far deeper emotional reactions than I’d expected. I wasn’t just watching a story about a sports hero; I was watching my grandfather’s story. I remember weeping at the little moments—when Eleanor was able to best Lou in a friendly wrestling match and cheered that she finally won; when Lou fell from his chair in the locker room. Terribly sad moments you know were the early signs of his disease. My grandfather’s ALS began in his arms; and the deterioration quickly forced him to stop working as a paper-hanger and painter.

Yes, this story was ours.

***

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has been sweeping social media this month. And, like anything that goes viral, it’s received its fair share of backlash. Will Oremus noted the illogic of the challenge in an article for Slate, and went on,

“As for ‘raising awareness,’ few of the videos I’ve seen contain any substantive information about the disease, why the money is needed, or how it will be used. More than anything else, the ice bucket videos feel like an exercise in raising awareness of one’s own zaniness, altruism, and/or attractiveness in a wet T-shirt.”

I get it. I get that the challenge makes no logical sense—why are we celebrating not giving?—and —that it seems silly and narcissistic—really, you’re just dousing yourself with cold water?

But silly and backward as it may seem, the videos are having an effect. About a week ago, the ALS Association reported that donations had increased nearly 400% over last year’s donations at the same time. 70,000 new donors gave to ALS research in the first two weeks of August.  Those numbers have only risen: The New York Times reports that over $13 million in donations was received as of last Sunday. Families fighting ALS are speaking out and commending the movement. I have friends who have said that their curiosity about all these posts made them Google ALS and find out what it is, because they didn’t know before.

70,000 new donors gave to ALS research in the first two weeks of August.

Social media is a quirky thing. You never can quite map what’s going to hit and what’s going to miss. Perhaps the very illogic of this challenge is why it’s a hit. For some reason, we like tossing ice water on ourselves, and hey, as a bonus, people are learning about a disease that many have never heard of. You can say the whole thing is dumb or annoying or a waste of time, but I’m guessing a whole lot more people have been reached through this than heard about ALS research and filled out a paper tag with their name at the drug store.

***

If The Curator’s purpose is talking about the world as it ought to be, it may seem strange that I’m writing about the Ice Bucket Challenge. But I think it fits within the category. The world that ought to be ought to be without diseases. It ought to be a world where amyotrophic lateral sclerosis never existed. That’s what it was created as, after all. Cornelius Plantinga, in the first chapter of Not the Way It’s Supposed To Be, says,

“Central in the classic Christian understanding of the world is a concept of the way things are supposed to be. They ought to be as designed and intended by God, both in creation and in graceful restoration of creation. They are supposed to include peace that adorns and completes justice, mutual respect, and deliberate and widespread attention to the public good.”

But sin entered the world, and death and disease through sin, and we now have to adjust our expectations of what the world ought to be.

Now, in its post-Fall state, the world ought to be one that has a cure for ALS. It ought to be a place where there is plenty of funding for research and support for impacted families. But perhaps the best we’re going to get is people dumping buckets of ice on themselves. And you know what? I’m okay with that.

Because the world ought to be a place where when we hear about injustice, when we learn about terrible situations, when we discover something awful and broken exists, we tell everyone we can. It ought to be a world where we are willing to bear the cold and discomfort to spread the word, one where we are willing to open our pockets and our hearts of compassion and give or serve as we are able. The world ought to be a place where we yell from the mountaintops that there is wrong and it should be made right.

Learn more about the ALS #IceBucketChallenge and the disease itself.

Listening Walls

I watched it on a small TV at a friend’s house in rural Alaska. Outside my window scruffy spruce trees and rugged mountains overlooked a cool June day; on the television, a hot European summer and an old stadium in Berlin filled with fans—yellow and green versus red and white. The walls of that Olympic Stadium must have shaken with the swelling sound of the crazed supporters for the opposing teams. It came over the airwaves to me, and I chuckled—I was watching this scene in a place where soccer is barely recognized as a sport. It’s not hockey, after all.

It was the ultimate David and Goliath football match, Croatia against Brazil. Sure, they’d made it to the World Cup again, but no one expected much from Croatia, especially playing against Brazil. There are reasons why Brazil leads the world in football. They are truly great. But, alone in the wilderness of Alaska, I was rooting for Croatia.

* * *

My love affair with Croatia began ten years earlier than that game, on a bright June day in 1996, when I landed in the Zagreb airport and headed out across the country to my friend’s home. It was less than a year since the last battle in the four-year war for independence that had left its mark on the countryside.  The beautiful landscape, once a draw for tourists from around the world, was ravaged by bombs and landmines. The fragile economy was taking its first tentative steps toward a free-market system. A proud race of people looked at their devastated countryside and found it hard to muster confidence for the future. Buildings bombed at the beginning of the war were overgrown with vegetation, while the ruins of more recent battles were still charred rubble.

We passed the shell of a hospital and spa complex, once premiere in the region, which had been bombed by Serbian troops. I wondered at the hatred that led to that kind of destruction. We stopped outside a little town named Lipik, at the ruins of a Lipizzaner horse farm. It seemed to fit that Croatia, home to a strong and proud people, would also be home for the tall, beautiful show horses. On a tour of the farm, I learned that the Serbs had positioned themselves on the ridge, bombed the stables with napalm, and then stolen the horses that weren’t killed. At one time, Croatia had the largest population of Lipizzaner horses in the world, but the man showing us around told us with tears in his eyes that they had all been taken away. The war was not simply about land and sovereignty; it was the age-old story of brother fighting against brother—each knowing just how to strike the rawest nerve and cripple his enemy’s pride. Walking through the stable, my toe touched a half-burned name plate and I bent down to read it: Vida, “life.”

* * *

It is said that it was a soccer match that triggered Croatia’s war for independence. In 1990, violence broke out between Croatian fans and Serbian fans at a match between a Zagreb team and a Belgrade team. No one knows who threw the first stone, but the police force, mostly Serbian, allowed the Serb fans to continue and beat the Croatian fans. One Croatian player got involved and karate-kicked a Serbian policeman. It was known as “the kick which started the war.” Within the month, a Croatian parliament held its first session and war began.

War in the Balkans is always a complicated matter: religion, ethnicity, and political affiliations divide people who in reality are very similar. But brutal fighting has torn the region for over a thousand years. In the Croatian war for independence, over ten thousand people were killed. At the end of it, a place that had once been a favorite stop for tourists became known as a war zone. A country that hoped to prove its potential to the world was relegated to the status of “former Yugoslavic republic.”

* * *

I have a photographic image in my mind of watching the 1998 World Cup final in France—a crowd of people gathered in the rain around one television set, covered with a raincoat in an outdoor café—but it is the third-place game a day earlier that plays itself out on live video in my memory. The great Oranje of the Netherlands against the unexpected Croatian team—this team, from a country that had not even existed seven years earlier, was up against one of the best teams in Europe. I watched the game in a French bistrot, surrounded by drunk Dutchmen garbed orange . . . and I rooted for Croatia.

I’ve been on the streets of a European city when their team is the underdog in a major match. Traffic stills; the bustle of an ordinary day quiets. In cafés and on street corners, men huddle around television sets intent upon the action. No matter where you go—from hotel lobbies to police stations, cafés to grocery stores—you can find a place to watch. I’m sure that the streets of Zagreb were quiet that day. They may have even set up large television sets in public places so that people who didn’t have them could watch. When Croatia scored, I bet you could hear the roar of the crowds echo through the cobblestone streets, all sharing the euphoric experience of joy.

In the little French bistrot, I was the only one rooting for the checkered red and white team, and, for fear of inciting the drunken, orange mob surrounding me, my outward celebration at their win was subdued. But internally I thrilled with joy. I knew I was joining thousands celebrating in a little country on the shore of the Adriatic Sea. I imagined the silent streets of Zagreb flooding with citizens as the match ended, singing and celebrating all night long in the city’s square. Only three years after the end of a terrible war, a young and struggling nation had made a name for itself on a world stage. I remember seeing photographs of grown men weeping, and a country celebrating together as if it had again declared its independence.

* * *

Eight years later Croatia returned to the World Cup for an encore performance. The team’s play was not as impressive as their first turn, and early match-ups against Titan teams didn’t bode well for the little country’s success. But the Croats had not forgotten what it meant to be there, to be playing—even if they were the long shot.

The old stadium in Berlin was overrun with Croatian fans, whose voices never hushed throughout ninety minutes of play. I watched, alone, on the other side of the world, kneeling on the floor in front of the television—rising up when the play grew intense, leaning back in the few quiet moments.  For the entire game Brazil out-played Croatia. And for the entire game Croatia hung in there. They only allowed one goal.

The final ten minutes of that match were electrifying. Watching on a small television thousands of miles away, I was engulfed by the sound that filled the stadium. Everything I thought and felt was displayed in full color and noise. The commentators could barely be heard over the din, but one of them said, “And remember, this is for the team that’s losing!” The entire Olympic stadium swayed with the sound and fury of the Croatian fans, who never gave up, even as their team lost.

* * *

The Olympic Stadium in Berlin was built at Hitler’s orders. He moved the games to Berlin from Poland in 1936 with the intention of showing the world the superiority of the Aryan race, but an American black man named Jesse Owens won four gold medals.

As I watched a soccer match in that stadium on a June day seventy years later, a little part of me wondered what those walls—built for the glory of Hitler—thought about that crowd. A group of people whose land had been wracked by genocide and war, playing their hearts out on the field, singing their hearts out in the stands, forgetting for a moment the horror they had lived—the killing and being killed—in the glory of knowing that they had made it through and were once again players on a world stage.

 

Our Beautiful Common Humanity

Ibiyinka Alao is an Arts Ambassador to the United Nations from Nigeria. Trained in architecture at the University Of Ile-Ife Nigeria, he is also a painter and became the first-place winner of the United Nations International Art Competition. Ibi visited Cairn University a few weeks ago where I had the pleasure of meeting him and hearing him speak. The following interview was conducted via email following our meeting. 

 

You grew up in a village in Nigeria, correct? Can you tell us a little bit of what your life was like as a child?

My little village is called Ponyan. My Father, Bamisaiye was a Public Administrator and my Mother, Grace, is a tailor. I have two brothers and two sisters. My childhood was filled with the freedom to play, the joy of being alive, the love of family, friends, and the knowledge of an Almighty God. Sometimes I wish time will take me back to the days I used to know then: nights when we listened to Father’s stories and Mother would sing those songs of Freedom, the Life and Times of playing hard without a care in the World!

You are a visual artist in your own right, winner of the United Nations International Art Competition. What are the influences you draw on when you are creating your own art? What themes do you see coming through as you create?

My greatest influences in life and in art are my Father, my Mother, and the ways they showed me about loving each other, loving others, and loving the Almighty God. The greatest theme that comes through my work is Redemption.

Sketch out for us your journey from your home to winning the United Nations International Art Competition to becoming and Arts Ambassador from Nigeria to the United Nations. What experiences and events highlight that journey in your memory?

After my study of Architecture, I started practicing with a firm in Nigeria, specializing in residential home design and construction. At the same time, I started mentoring a group of children who came to my Father’s house after work. One day, I saw the announcement for the United Nations International Arts Competition in one of the local newspapers. In an attempt to get the kids to participate in the children’s category, I had to enter a painting of mine titled “Girls and a Greener Environment” in the adult category. My entry won the first place in Nigeria, and then amongst the 61 participating countries in New York City. As a result of this, the Federal Government of Nigeria asked me to serve my country as an Arts Ambassador and embedded me with the Embassy of Nigeria to the United Nations.

When I heard you speak recently, you mentioned that in your homeland, art belongs to everyone; it is out in the streets among the people, created or performed in collaboration. How is that different than your observations of how we treat art in America?

Not long after I won the United Nations Arts award, I had a meeting with the curator of the Museum for African Art in New York City in which she asked me to be a part of a group show about Contemporary African Art. I felt honored to be asked however I had to tell her no for this very reason. Art, being Art, should never be anything more or less than Art and should always be opening people’s Hearts in the present as well as everywhere they are.

I have never been able to conceive how any rational system will take the very things that were given us to travel better on this spiritual journey, lock them up in a building, and only open up to tell people about how great journey the artist undertook or what a great time the Art was made in. I sometimes feel as if in the West, most art institutions are set up this way and rarely engage people in the present. We therefore feel alienated from the Art and most people end up feeling Art is only for an elite group of people.

This is why it was very difficult to set up a Western-style Theater, Museum, or even a Movie Cinema in Nigeria. People just weren’t used to sitting for a few hours to look at a movie, play, visual art, or listen to a song without the audience participating or reacting to it themselves. That is why Herbet Ogunde, one of the finest playwrights from Africa came up with a version of the Theater that is more traditional to African cultures and sense of Art appreciation.

What elements of your cultural background do you bring into your work with the UN? Are there elements from American culture or other cultures of the world that you see as valuable in the work of diplomacy?

I have been a peace builder for a few years and my philosophy about conflict resolution can be reduced to this: Above everything we do in life, it is necessary to listen well. And by this I mean to listen to things that people are not saying which they really mean to say, to listen to silent voices, and also to extract those things that people really mean from too many things they are saying.

This I learnt from the African tradition of not interjecting whenever an older person is speaking, taking turns to speak, etc. This is not so in America as people are taught at an early age to speak up. Ironically, this could also be the valuable element from American culture that I apply in my work of diplomacy. That may be why a lot of social justice issues, human rights issues and many more are at the forefront of things in this country while in Africa, we still have some dictators and human rights violations because of people resigning everything to fate and wanting decorum instead of speaking up.

You’ve mentioned that in your work as an ambassador to the UN, you’ve used art as a tool for conflict resolution. Can you tell us what that looks like?

In the world of conflict resolution, there comes a point when one realizes that talking has its limits either because of language barrier or exhaustion of that dimension of communication. Then we have to employ extraordinary means of communication which are higher dimensions than mere speech.

Art really does open our hearts and our minds to extraordinary ways of thinking about love and peace. What I do is that whenever I see that a peace negotiation is going nowhere, I begin to talk about art and various wisdoms we can derive from familiar and even unfamiliar cultures. For example, we can learn a lot about forgiveness from just looking at and discussing about a painting with such a theme. Afterwards, I will invite the parties to join me in a painting workshop, usually very simple and about 30 minutes to 1 hour long. I will start by painting a picture and then inviting everyone to do the same. In the process of accomplishing this task, irrespective of their feelings towards each other, the fact that they are all doing the same thing and becoming successful at it resonates in the shape of what is to happen with the sometimes-heated discussions we were having. People, who did not want to talk to each other, begin to ask each other questions about their work, compliment and appreciate what each other are doing. Then they forget that they were not supposed to be friends. Even when they remember, the atmosphere of the room has ruined it for them so they want to and believe that they can resolve the issues as well which the key ingredient in any conflict resolution is: for the parties to believe that they can resolve their differences.

When I heard you speak, I jotted down this sentence: “An artist is a person with a hole in his or her heart that is equally sized to the universe around him or her.” Can you expand on that idea?

I got this idea from the Bible: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 NIV).

I believe that to learn to live in harmony with our likeness of God in the ability to be creative beings, we have to look up to God for the answers, and He has provided the answers in the Bible. We all experience emptiness, a void inside us as the earth was void in Genesis. But the good thing is that as the spirit of God moved over that void to create things, He has given us that spirit as well so that we can create things. Sometimes, that spirit mixes with our body and it gives forth an artist, sometimes it’s an engineer, sometimes an administrator and at other times a tailor, farmer, musician, teacher and so on. When I paint a picture, all I am doing is filling this void, or hole in my heart. The reduction of the universe to a single being is human. The expansion of a single being even to infinity, this is the universe.

At The Curator, we talk about art and culture celebrating or announcing signs of a “world that ought to be.” As I’ve heard you talk about your work, it strikes me that diplomacy has a similar goal – moving toward a world that ought to be. In what ways do you see your work in the arts and in diplomacy seeking that world?

Today, many people believe that to learn to live in harmony with each other, we must look up to Art for the answers. This may sound like a utopian idea, but like every idea that has advanced the history of civilization, it is a necessary one. One of such ideas is to use art as a means for evangelism and also for conflict resolutions. Art comes from a deep understanding of our various cultures and as it burns in our souls (by this I mean when we use it for the aforementioned purposes), it turns back to those cultures helping us to see our beautiful common humanity and producing no deaths. Tomorrow, I believe this idea will help revolutionize the relationship between humans, our environments, and the justice we seek.

 

The Beauty of Americana

I first discovered American folk music in books.

It is bedtime, and I’m curled up under Great-Grandma’s patchwork quilt as Mom reads chapters from the Little House books, comes to a part where Pa pulls out his fiddle and begins to sing the songs of the people. I’m in high school, reading Christy for the first time, and I’m so caught by the magic of the song printed before the prologue I look it up and learn the tune and sing it to children I babysit as I rock them to sleep:

Down in the valley,
valley so low
Hang your head over,
hear the wind blow.
Hear the wind blow, love,
hear the wind blow;
Hang your head over,
hear the wind blow.

My love of American folk music has nostalgic tendencies to be sure. However, as I look at the growing popularity in recent years of bands like The Civil Wars, The Avett Brothers, The Lone Bellow, The Lumineers, The Vespers, etc. (and of course the meteoric fame of the non-American-American-folk-rock band Mumford and Sons), I realize I’m not alone in my love for Americana.

There is something about American folk music that speaks to us, something in its essence that keeps us asking for more.

Here’s the thing, though. As much as I love all those bands listed above and latch on to nearly every new album that seeks to generate the Americana sound, it’s rare for me to find an album that fully captures what I found under that patchwork quilt. It’s not often contemporary musicians strike the same chords in my soul as “Down in the Valley.”

Enter Ron Block’s “Walking Song”.

Ron Block is an accomplished musician, songwriter, and producer. He has been a member of Alison Krauss & Union Station for 20 years. His music has been recorded by artists in country, bluegrass, and Christian music. He’s played with some of the most recognizable names in American music. Nobody has ever doubted Ron Block’s talent. But “Walking Song” is something new—or perhaps something old.

There is a marriage of music and lyric on Block’s album that rises above its contemporary counterparts. It’s the kind of sound you would expect to hear around an Appalachian fireplace, or sung to tunes Pa Ingalls produced from his fiddle on those chilly nights on the prairie as Laura and Mary fell asleep in the wagon.

The creators of folk songs have been lost to history. The songs themselves were passed down orally from generation to generation. We have working songs with steady rhythms that remind us of chopping wood or kneading bread. We have dancing tunes with lilting melodies that set our feet to tapping. We have ballads and lullabies with quiet, flowing strains that relax our minds and bodies. These songs came into existence in a time when people worked together, danced together, sang together. They lived together, and one would pull out an instrument and another would choose words to sing to the tune, and songs came to be. Songwriting sessions and studios weren’t a part of the picture.

Contemporary Americana’s folk roots lie primarily in Appalachian songs and bluegrass. But most of it is highly influenced by more contemporary music forms like rock and roll and pop music. I do not mean to diminish the creative process of any band, but I wonder whether the very nature of the music industry has forced the loss of those elements that make our American folk music strike our hearts.  It is, after all, an “industry”—the very word bringing with it pictures of factories and machines.

I wonder if its unique creation process is the very thing that makes “Walking Song” stand out. Ron Block didn’t partner with the big names of Nashville to write his songs. Instead, he paired up with Rebecca Reynolds, a mom, a teacher, a wife, and a poet. Ron and Rebecca met through The Rabbit Room, an online community created by singer/songwriter Andrew Peterson. The Rabbit Room is an experiment in creative community inspired by The Inklings; a place for creatives to gather, to discuss, to challenge one another, and to think together about life and art and faith.

After getting to know Ron through discussions on the site, Rebecca asked him if he would be interested in collaborating. She didn’t realize that he was that big a deal, and the invitation opened new opportunities for Ron—he was able to explore creativity without the pressure to produce. Their collaboration happened almost entirely via Skype, and as their friendship deepened, the creativity flowed. He would find the tune, she would find the words, or vice versa, or simultaneously.

“Walking Song” is the result of friends doing life together in community. It goes back to the roots of what folk music really is and strikes that chord we seem to all be seeking.

The songs on the album cover a broad variety of styles. “Sunshine Billy” brings the blues to the fore; “Jordan, Carry Me” celebrates the spirituals; “Rest, My Soul” follows the style of traditional American hymns. The album’s heart, though, is in the Appalachian and bluegrass tunes. There’s a dancing tune, “Ivy,” and ballad, “Colors.” “Nickel Tree Line,” featuring harmony vocals by Alison Krauss, is perhaps the most bluegrass of the songs with words, but is supported by Ron’s instrumental arrangements of traditional bluegrass songs “Devil in the Strawstack” and “Shortnin’ Bread.” In “Summer Lullaby” I found a new song to sing over sleeping children.

But I was struck most deeply by “Let There Be Beauty.” If my theory is correct that it was the communal aspect of the creation of this album that makes it stand out, “Let There Be Beauty” is the quiet anthem of that sort of artistic community:

So, let there be beauty,
For beauty is good,
The made and the making
And the bliss understood.
So, let there be beauty,
For beauty is free,
Come swim in the waters,
Come drink from the stream.

We live constantly in a space of tension when it comes to community in our contemporary era. We rarely sit together around fireplaces on long winter evenings. Our work “together” is done individually in cubicles each with his own screen and keyboard. Our human interaction often happens via the internet. But Block and Reynolds have leveraged the technology of today to create in a community of the past, the kind of artistic community where “The made and the making and the bliss [are] understood.”

Ron Block’s album “Walking Song” was released on July 30, 2013. It can be purchased through The Rabbit Room or other online outlets.

 

photo by: normanack

Risky Art: A Review of Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing”

It’s a feast for a Whedonite. I found myself squealing “Topher!” when Fran Kranz came on screen and asking myself, “Where have I seen her?” practically every time a new actor appeared. But it’s not just for Joss Whedon fans. And it’s not just for Shakespeare fans either. Much Ado About Nothing is one of those smart, funny, interesting, clever, and artistic films that the thinking viewer hopes will come out of Hollywood, but comes too rarely.

Plenty has been written about how this Much Ado came to be. Joss Whedon had wanted to do Shakespeare for years and found himself with time between finishing filming on The Avengers and post-production. His gracious wife gave up vacation so they could pursue the project and they gathered together a group of friends in the industry to make it happen.

I remember when the word broke that Joss Whedon was making the movie. They’d just finished filming and they had managed to keep it completely under the radar until that point. It was the indie scene’s fairy tale: a major director, a big name who had just made a Marvel superheroes movie, had stepped back and done what independent filmmakers do every day – made a movie at home with no studio backing, no plan for distribution, and practically no budget.

It was a move that said true art is not dead in Hollywood. It was a move that said there’s value in a group of people creating together. It was a move that said risks are still worth taking, even though our culture’s artistic industries allow less and less room for them.

Of course, the independent filmmaker who hasn’t ground it out in the industry, found a cult following, and crossed over to big-time studio success probably won’t follow quite the same happily-ever-after path Whedon’s little project has followed. There was immediate buzz about the film; before it even entered post production people wanted to see it. They took it to Toronto for the 2012 Film Festival last August and Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions picked it up for limited theatrical release. Risks may still be worth taking, but in a Fast and Furious 6 culture, they’re not going to make the mainstream.

That’s a shame, because Whedon’s Much Ado stands up to even the expectations of the Shakespeare/Whedonite that I am.

It’s beautiful.

There’s an acrobatic act going on during the party scene—two women dancing in the air as they hang from a tree over the crowd. The loveliness of that has hung with me since I left the theatre. It was high-wire ballet, moving sculpture.

Joss Whedon took something very old and made it very new. It’s a tad jarring to have Leonato enter with a smart phone, saying, “I have here in this letter…” So to bridge the gap, Whedon gave us a sense of place—the house his wife designed—and a sense of timelessness by filming in black and white. The textures of the house are emphasized by the lack of color—the stucco and wrought iron and wood grains and glass—each lend themselves to the feel of the whole film. The textures of the characters’ clothing, from the sheer fabric of Beatrice’s dresses to Don Pedro and Leonato’s smooth suits and ties even to Benedick’s sweat suit in one scene, both add to the individual characters and delineate one from another.

The shot of Claudio and Don Pedro leading the procession of mourners for Hero’s funeral is absolutely breathtaking. The characters, dressed in black, line a long path down the hill, their eyes lowered, each holding a single candle in their hands as they walk. Whedon’s somber arrangement of “Heavily” (Shakespeare’s lyric for the funeral) adds to the beauty of the moment.

It’s emotional.

Hero and Claudio steal the show on an emotional level. Fran Kranz’s earnest conversation with Don Pedro about his feelings for Hero, his somewhat-drunk unbelieving stupor when he’s told Don Pedro did not betray him, his portrayal of broken-hearted anger at Hero’s faithlessness before the wedding—all of them tug the viewer’s heart, from joy to frustration, from pity to anger.

Jillian Morgese’s Hero is understated and delicate. We smile with her at her teasing and loving relationship with her father (Clark Gregg’s Leonato). We enjoy her moments of young love with Claudio. Our hearts break with hers as she’s cast off at the altar, not knowing why she’s been so falsely accused. We sorrow with her as she watches Claudio grieve her at the funeral, and we thrill when she says, “One Hero died defiled, but I live. And as surely as I live, I am a maid.”

Amy Acker (Beatrice) stands out on an emotional level as well. She is able to balance the downright funny with the deeply moving, and to deftly go back and forth between the two, making them both believable.

It’s funny.

Beatrice gets a good portion of the humor as well. There’s a scene where she, in the midst of a having a conversation, is fending off the flirtations of a man. The joke is completely visual; there’s not a single line of dialogue directed toward him, but the scene gets funnier and funnier each time she dodges his advances.

Alexis Denisof shines as Benedick in the funny scenes. His performance is the most slapstick of them all, and unfortunately makes the more serious scenes a bit harder to believe. But when he’s funny, he’s fantastic. There’s brotherly banter with Claudio, bravado with Beatrice, and absolute hilarity in the scene when he listens in on Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio talking about Beatrice’s love for him.

The humor isn’t limited to the over-the-top scenes. There are bits and pieces, looks and jokes throughout most of the lighter moments that add to the layers of funny. Watch the characters in the background of any scene—Clark Gregg’s Leonato in particular—there are jewels to be found.

Perhaps the funniest of all, though, is Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry. And perhaps the greatest compliment I can give him as an actor is that he made the choice to enunciate. So often Dogberry is played with extreme silliness that detracts from the hilarity of the lines Shakespeare wrote for him. Fillion’s performance of Dogberry as the bumbling cop lets his utterly mixed up vocabulary shine, and Dogberry is better (and so much funnier) for it.

It’s art.

The fairy tale of big-time-director-goes-indie wouldn’t hold much weight if they hadn’t made a good movie. But they did. And therefore the idea of the movie shines out even brighter.

Joss Whedon is exceptionally talented. Even those who don’t really follow his genre could not argue against that. But what I like most about him is that he thinks when he makes movies and television. He’s never willing to just do what needs to be done to get something made within the confines of the system that exists.

Perhaps the best thing of all about Much Ado About Nothing is that it actually got made—that a group of friends decided they wanted to do this, made the time for it, and did it well. Limited release or no, it’s encouraging to see that something like this movie can still happen. May it encourage all artists to do what they love, and do it well, and may we see more communities of people creating art together for the love of it.