30 September 2006

A Failure of Virtual Imagination?

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 11:39 am

In an earlier post I mentioned the upcoming Baylor conference on Christian Imagination, saying that I would explore putting the talks up on a blog. First I asked Coleman Fannin what he thought. His notice about the conference over at Generous Orthodoxy first caught my eye, and he’s going to be a speaker there. Here’s what Coleman said:

That’s a very interesting idea. Honestly, I have no idea what the response would be from the speakers, presenters, or readers. You may run into a problem with the more “senior” academics who are not familiar with or interested in blogs, and it’d be tough to get the word out and generate responses. Then again, you never know, and if it worked it certainly could be a great discussion. Thanks for contacting me, and please let me know if you decide to go forward.

Encouraged by Coleman’s response, I emailed the Baylor Institute on Faith and Learning (IFL), the conference organizers. I told them I would make a blog dedicated exclusively to the conference that would serve as a sort of “virtual conference” for people who couldn’t attend in person. I said I’d get in touch with the presenters individually, but that I wouldn’t proceed if the IFL nixed it. Here’s the Associat Director’s response:

Thank you for your enthusiastic interest in the “The World and Christian Imagination” as well as your kind offer to design and host a blog for the event. While the idea is an interesting one that we may take under consideration for future conferences, we have determined that we will have to pass on the opportunity for this conference.

Best wishes,
Ronny Fritz, Institute for Faith and Learning

Baylor University

As I mentioned to Coleman, this is the kind of rejection that makes me want to go ahead and set the blog up anyway – but I won’t. Instead, I’ll try to get in touch with a few of the presenters individually and see what kind of work they’re doing. If it makes sense I’ll post links from this blog and perhaps stimulate discussion that way.

29 September 2006

What If God… (Part Two)

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 3:34 pm

What if God is the difference between evolving and improving?

What if God is the difference between surviving and living?

What if God is the difference between adapting and creating?

What if God is the difference between fitness and goodness?

What if God is the difference between individualism and individuality?

What if God is the difference between communalism and community?

What if God is the difference between choice and calling?

What if God is the difference between opinion and truth?

What if God is the difference between taste and beauty?

What if God is the difference between power and justice?

What if God is the difference between want and love?

Would such a God be more like us, or more different?

Can you imagine such a God?

28 September 2006

What If God… (Part One)

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 3:11 pm

What if God doesn’t know everything but is a good learner?

What if God can’t do everything but works really hard?

What if God can’t imagine every possibility but likes surprises?

What if God can’t control everything but is a great improviser?

What if God makes mistakes but isn’t too proud to admit them?

What if God can’t transcend time but uses time as an opportunity to introduce change and difference?

What if God had absolutely nothing to do with creating the material world but has everything to do with making sense of it?

What if God is more like us than unlike us?

Can you imagine such a God?

27 September 2006

Like the Skin of an Orange

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 12:10 pm

The real world is riddled with portals, each of which leads to an alternate reality. But from the roiling surface of the world the portals just look like texture, like the skin of an orange.

Reading the morning’s headlines, I see stories about airport security, alleged racism of a US senator, the results of a football game, the possible political candidacy of a Hollywood star, and so on. In combination, these stories give me a quick glimpse of the current status of our world. By later today half of these stories will have been bumped from the “front page;” by tomorrow they’ll all be gone. This is a study in what Paul Virilio calls “dromology”: the science and logic of speed. The headlines convey the impression of a fast-moving world always rushing headlong into the future.

Taken one at a time, though, each news story is a portal to an alternate reality. Realities aren’t planets or alternate dimensions in the space-time continuum; they’re meaning systems, ways of making sense of whole complexes of events. The story of the senator’s possible racism addresses several larger topics: racism generally, the character and career of this particular public figure, the ways in which public allegation can and should influence public opinion, and so on. Instead of jumping to the next story, you can allow this one news article to stimulate your interest in plunging into one of the larger topics. You allow the story to serve as a portal to an alternate reality, in which many different events spread across space and time are linked together by a single strand of meaning.

The blogosphere likewise is a clearinghouse of portals. Scanning today’s posts across multiple blogs is like reading the front page of the paper. You can skim the surface and feel up to date. But by following the links embedded in any one post, or by reading the archived posts and pages of any one blog, you allow the ephemeral post to serve as a portal to an alternate reality.

It’s possible to engage the “real world” as it’s presented: a rapidly-changing yet consistent, diverse yet all-encompassing reality in which attention is directed by what’s new/hot/controversial. There are opportunities to create in the forward-and-across motion of this real world – commenting on current events, reviewing movies/books/music, spreading memes, making fashion statements, networking.

It’s also possible to allow yourself to be drawn into one of the innumerable portals that riddle the ever-expanding, ever-advancing surface of the real world. Your momentum changes: instead of moving forward in time and across the surface, you find yourself moving through time and into the layers beneath the surface. There are portalic opportunities to create: writing books and articles, making movies, doing research projects, inventing artifacts.

If you go into a portal you might stay immersed inside an alternate reality for days, weeks, years, before you come back out with something. Then your creation pops to the surface of the real world, where it tries to capture a little bit of attention for a week or so before it’s covered over by the next layer of “content.”

26 September 2006

Sure He Did…

Filed under: First Lines — ktismatics @ 10:10 am

“Je fais toujours bien le premier vers; mais j’ai peine à faire les autres.”

(I always do the first line well, but I have trouble doing the others.)

Molière, Les Précieuses Ridicules, 1659

Thanks to Anne at blueVicar for this one.

Baylor Symposium on Christian Imagination

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 8:48 am

In November the Baylor Institute for Faith and Learning will host a symposium entitled The World and Christian Imagination. I summarize from the précis:

Imagination is a way of being in the world, manifesting itself not just in the arts but in community, economics, ethics, philosophy, politics, science, and tradition. Grounded in truth and a Scriptural revelation of human meaning and purpose, the Christian imagination ought to be thoroughly immersed in and captive to the claims of Christ. By discerning the world as it really is – intrinsically related to God but held in thrall by “functional atheism” – the Christian imagination can transform the world into what it ought to be.

This is where things get difficult for me. Imagination as a desirable human capability that affects all aspects of life? Yes. Imagination as a way of seeing the world as it is and as it ought to be? That’s only two possibilities, but I suppose it’s better than one. Imagination as a means of transforming the world from “is” to “ought”? That depends on whose “ought” we’re talking about, and what it looks like. Imagination in which every thought is held captive to Christ? I can imagine the moralistic and inspiring kitsch and the bad science and the groupthink sluicing out the end of that pipeline. If, on the other hand, a Christlike imagination is one that takes you way out there, to the point of walking on water and getting yourself killed…

There’s a list of presenters on the symposium website – I’ll see if I can get abstracts of their talks and preview them here.

25 September 2006

Evangelism as Marketing

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 8:30 am

Most of the “creatives” I know work in marketing. They make commercials, write ad campaigns, do market research – anything they can think of to overcome buyer resistance and to make their product more attractive. Their job is to come up with clever ways to get customers to buy things. I used to consult with pharmaceutical companies, an industry that spends hugely on R&D for creating new products. Still, even in that industry marketing outspends R&D 4 to 1.

The Jesuits used strong-arm evangelization tactics, figuring it was in the heathens’ and the heretics’ best interests to suffer a little earthly torment if it meant avoiding eternal damnation. The softer sell probably began with the Wesleys. Man’s will is corrupt but man can choose; God’s grace is available to all but grace can be resisted. What’s needed are methods: methods for overcoming resistance to grace, methods for highlighting the advantages of the faith to potential converts, methods for strengthening the will to choose and to persevere. Isn’t that a pretty good description of marketing – overcoming resistance, spotlighting how the product benefits the customer, strengthening the decision to buy, maintaining brand loyalty?

The Methodists and their Arminian fellow travelers have done particularly well in America. You have to wonder: is corporate marketing a secularized version of Methodism, or is evangelism a Christianized version of modern capitalism? And what of it? Is there anything wrong with investing creative resources in overcoming buyer resistance and wrapping the product in attractive packaging? Besides, what are the alternatives?

23 September 2006

A Failure in Imagination?

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 8:40 am

Jonathan Erdman and I were participating in a discussion on Jesus Creed about twentieth century theologian Hans Frei. Things were going along nicely when all of a sudden the entire post disappeared. In looking into Frei’s theology I came across this quote from him:

“It is doubtless true that Christianity cannot exist as a strong force without providing food for the imaginative life – sensual, verbal, or some other form – as the cement of the real world with religious affirmation. The present decline of Protestant Christianity in particular is due in part to a failure in imagination.

Where in particular does a failure in imagination contribute to the church’s inability to “cement the world with religious affirmation”? Where does a reclaiming of imagination contribute to the church’s revival?

22 September 2006

Angelheaded Hipsters

Filed under: First Lines — ktismatics @ 3:56 pm

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,
starving hysterical naked
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for
an angry fix,”

– Allen Ginsberg, Howl, 1956

I was twenty years old and it was the first English elective I had taken. It would be the last. The entire grade was based on an essay about Howl. Spring term 1972, the war still on, the streets choked with protesters and tear gas. I would never write the essay. I would not return to school in the fall. I would go to Tangiers. Twenty years later my wife and daughter and I would move to Boulder, Colorado, where Ginsberg and Kerouac and their beat buddies had once set up shop. We were making a lot of money then; we fit right in. We don’t live there any more.

21 September 2006

Art as Portal

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 10:26 am

Surrounded by the sophisticated drawings that decorate the walls of the Pech Merle cave, the two roughly sketched lines of charcoal look at first like random marks made by a child, or perhaps a false start. Then, as the guide highlights with her laser pointer the natural contours and discolorations of the rock framed by the two lines, you see it: a mammoth in relief. With two lines the artist identified the back and the stomach; the rest of the animal is part of the cave wall itself. It’s nearly miraculous that any mere human could have summoned such discernment and subtlety, but there it is: the work of an anonymous Cro-Magnon artist who, twenty thousand years ago, made these two marks.

According to anthropologists, the artist may have believed that the spirits of animals lived in the cave, embedded in the rock. In drawing those two lines, the artist was outlining a portal for the mammoth-spirit to enter the mortal world. Elsewhere in the cave human hands have been stenciled onto the walls. They are reverse images, made by pressing a palm against the wall and then spraying dye from the mouth across both the back of the hand and the wall. The technique creates a trompe l’oil, the illusion of a hand having passed into the wall. Maybe the handprints were portals through which the artist could pass the spirit of his drawing hand. If he could touch the primal beasts living inside the rock he would be empowered to draw them more accurately, thereby strengthening the connection between the two worlds.

Art has always been iconic, offering passage from everyday life into other realities. The other realities are elusive. At times they seem to surround and permeate us, but their presence is obscured by the dominance that ordinary reality exerts on the world and on our awareness. What we need is a portal, a passageway between this reality and the other. Art is one kind of portal.

Did the anonymous iconographers of Pech-Merle discover the passageways that the god-creatures had already placed in the wall, or did the artists create the connections between matter and spirit? Do the portals already exist in the world, waiting for the artist to discern their contours and to outline them so the rest of us can pass through? Or do the artists actively create the portals, burrowing through this reality until they break through to the other side?

20 September 2006

God-Created Biblical Realities

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 10:34 am


And Yahweh was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So Yahweh said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the earth.”

And so, in Genesis 7, God sent the flood. But Noah had found favor in the eyes of Yahweh, and through Noah the original human lineage perpetuated itself into future generations. Yahweh could just as easily have destroyed everyone, including Noah, and started over from scratch. Or he could simply have decommissioned man the idea, stripping all men of their value like coins minted in a currency suddenly declared obsolete. The idea of man is different from the physical being called man; the reality of man does not depend on the physical existence of men. Men are material things, but in themselves they have no meaning. Even “real” men, men as things imbued with meaning, are replaceable. As long as the idea of man persists, the generations of men can continue.

This is an idea about creating realities, about the relationship between raw matter and an idea that makes sense of the raw matter. Cups are cups because intelligent beings created a category called “cup” and stuck all the cups inside it. Men are men because God created a category called “man” and stuck all the men inside it. Matter wedded to idea is reality. If God pulled all the men back out of the category, the category “man” would persist in the mind of God, and the creature formerly called “man” would persist in nature. But the category would be empty, and the creature would be nameless.

Later in Genesis and continuing into Exodus we see God creating a people of his own: the Jews. But he doesn’t create them materially, by fashioning a new version of humankind from scratch out of raw materials. Instead, he sets apart some of the already-existing humans. This apart-setting wasn’t a geophysical act, since even in Egypt, even in Sinai before they crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land, the Jews were already God’s people. And again after they were scattered in the Exile, his people they remained. Circumcision doesn’t set the male children apart individually; it marks them as having already been set apart. Even the Law of Moses, which is itself a work of creation, doesn’t set the people of God apart collectively; it’s a code of behavioral ethics assigned to the already-set-apart community. God created a chosen people by assigning a specific meaning to a specific subset of raw humanity.

In a fit of rage Moses dashed to the ground the two tablets containing God’s Law, shattering them. Yahweh had already warned Moses on the mountaintop:

“Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation.”

God offered an arrangement to Moses not unlike the one he had once made with Noah. But Moses didn’t just follow instructions; instead, he pleaded with Yahweh his God, reminding him of the promises he had made to Abraham and Isaac and Israel. And Yahweh repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people. Satisfied, Moses came down from the mountain carrying the two tablets, engraved on both sides of the stone by God himself. As he approached the camp Moses witnessed with his own eyes what had provoked Yahweh’s wrath: his people were dancing before the golden calf, worshipping it as a god. It was then that Moses performed his theatrical act of destruction. Later, after the sons of Levi avenged God’s honor by slaughtering some three thousand men, after Yahweh sent a plague upon the stiff-necked people, after the people mourned and humbled themselves, after the people again found favor in the sight of Yahweh, then did Moses cut two tablets of stone, like unto the ones he broke, and again did Yahweh write the law on the tablets. For to shatter the tablets is not to destroy the law, and the God who had made the Jews into a people would not abandon them to their raw humanity.

18 September 2006

The Making of Meaningful Things

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 3:14 pm

Let’s propose that creation is the making of meaningful things. There are two ways to go about creating a meaningful thing: either make the thing, or make the meaning.

Say you’re a potter and you make a cup. A cup is a physical thing whose meaning is already defined: it’s a thing for drinking out of. Now say you take a cup, hold it up, and announce, “This is the cup of the new covenant.” You’ve embedded an already-existing thing and assigned a different meaning to it.

Which is the more creative act: the making of new objects, or the making of new meanings?

17 September 2006

A Difficult Wisdom and an Ephemeral Passion

Filed under: First Lines — ktismatics @ 11:36 am

“All those lives lived in the rarified air of the absurd could not persevere without some profound and constant thought to infuse them with strength.”

Albert Camus, “Absurd Creation,” 1955

In the mythology of creation, art is an outflow of passion. Camus reverses the flow: passion is an outflow of art. Having discovered the depthless indifference of the world, the artist, absurdly, begins to create. But the artist doesn’t create passion. The unfolding creation envelops the artist in passion. So too the philosopher. Artists and philosophers involve themselves, become themselves, in the work. “There are no frontiers between the disciplines that man sets himself for understanding and loving.”

“If the world were clear, art would not exist.” Art fails to make the world clear. Art is absurd.

“To think is first of all to create a world (or to limit one’s own world, which comes to the same thing…” Philosophers are writers who populate their created worlds with characters and symbols and plots. Novelists structure their worlds with postulates, logic, clarifications.

“The fecundity and the importance of a literary form are often measured by the trash it contains.” In bad novels, thought wins out over style. Worst of all is the novel that proves, the smug novel, the novel dominated by ideas instead of thought. And what of great novels? “The writer has given up telling ‘stories’ and creates his universe. The great novelists are philosophical novelists – that is, the contrary of thesis-writers.” What then shall be said of good and bad philosophy: the same, or its inverse?

Melville, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Malraux. “What distinguishes modern sensibility from classical sensibility is that the latter thrives on moral problems and the former on metaphysical problems.” Camus, poised at the end of an age, acknowledged the suicidal absurdity of having to work on problems that cannot be solved. Is postmodern sensibility recognized by the death of all problems or by the suicide of the problem-solver?

“Hope cannot be eluded forever.” Through the patient and ruthless exercise of an ascetic discipline the creator might postpone hope’s inevitable dominance; rarely can he elude it. Camus counts Moby Dick as an absurd work – but it’s too early to start making lists.

16 September 2006

Creating Realities

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 12:45 pm

Things aren’t real in and of themselves. They exist, they have substance, but they have no intrinsic meaning. They just are. Only things that have been made meaningful are real. Realities are created by embedding stuff inside a system of meanings.

The reality of a thing is its substance plus its meaning. Here’s a thing that’s a potential weapon; it’s inedible but it can be exchanged for food; it’s measurable; it has a particular name – multiple overlapping systems of meaning shape our awareness of everything.

A creator alternately contemplates the stuff of material existence and imagines what the stuff could mean. Looking stimulates the imagination, while imagining opens the eyes. Thing is substance; idea is meaning; thing imbued with idea is reality. Substance alone is proto-reality, devoid of form and meaning; idea alone is mere possibility without its realization. To create a reality you need both substance and idea, idea wedded to substance.

Making something tangible out of nothing has been the sine qua non of godlike creation. We creators can’t do that – except maybe for those of us who know how to run a nuclear accelerator. We can, however, organize matter in clever ways, turning raw stuff into hammers, highways, rocket ships. It takes more than just an opposable thumb to do this sort of thing. Even fashioning a simple tool out of rock demands the ability to impose a reality on the rock, a reality in which rock possesses properties useful for grinding or bashing or scraping. A new product, a painting, a new household – even modest undertakings demand attention to a host of details. Still, it’s the larger intent that guides the work of creation, from the earliest imaginings to their full manifestation. The ideas proposed and the words for communicating them, the tasks accomplished and the tools for performing them – everything acquires meaning by its participation in and contribution to the larger vision. When you’ve finished putting everything together it’s as if you’ve just created a whole universe. Well, perhaps that is a bit of a stretch.

To create a reality you have to “make sense” of raw stuff. Say you want to take a photograph of a parade. Do you try to capture the essence of the parade on film, or do you try to embed the parade in a photographic aesthetic? Now say you’re an abstract painter. Do you try to envision an abstract reality and then represent it on the canvas, or do you bring the abstraction out of the interaction of paint and canvas? Now say you want to be a professional artist. Do you create artistic realities that you see, then see if people like them? Or do you try to figure out what kinds of paintings people like, and then paint them?

You’re a creator of churches: do you imagine what a church might be and try to make it, or do you see what a church already is and try to make sense of it? Do you put the church out into the world and see who likes it, or do you try to discern what kind of church people like and then try to make it?

The world is interpenetrated by multiple realities: linguistic, social, economic, political, technological, architectural. The people who participate in the reality of a church also participate simultaneously in these other realities. Does a missional church attempt to subsume all these other realities within the reality of the church? Alternatively, does a missional church attempt to embed itself within the meaning systems of the other realities with which it shares the world? Or does church reality exist in parallel with all the other realities, each one imbuing the world with its own set of meanings?

15 September 2006

An Introduction to Ktismatics

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 11:02 am

I’ve written a book on the theory and practice of creation as illuminated in the Biblical creation narrative. Thinking that my interpretation of the Biblical text might point to a relatively amicable resolution of the creation-versus-evolution controversy, I put my exegesis up on this website. Then I set about exploring blogspace in search of kindred spirits who might want to see what I had to show them. I’ve learned a great deal from many excellent bloggers, especially those who are emerging out of the traditional evangelical orbit. I will leave the exegesis pages posted on this blog for who have an interest in such things.

For the past three weeks I’ve been posting a series of First Lines — oblique reflections of creation that I see in the first sentences of various texts. I intend to continue writing these from time to time — perhaps I’ll open it up for others to write “First Lines” meditations on books that they like.

Now, though, I’m going to set aside my theological speculations to focus more directly on “ktismatics” — the theory and practice of creation. In Part Three of my book I identify several strands of what it means to be a creator. I don’t talk about “creativity” as a personality trait or a gift, as something inside the creator. Instead, I describe creation as a way of orienting oneself toward the world. To be creative, to be a creator, is to create.

Tomorrow I’ll begin with an overview of the first ktismatic strand, which is the creation of realities. You can get an overview of the strands by looking at the summary of Part Three of the book here.

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