Carrying the Old, Making the New

In his essay “Equipment for Living,” Michael Robbins asks, “What are we doing with all these films and songs and novels and poems and pictures? Why keep making them? Don’t we have enough, or too much?”

Robbins wrote a new essay to pose that question to us, and then makes his argument with the help of old poets, philosophers, writers, singers, and filmmakers. We make art, dearly beloved, because it helps us “get through this thing called life.

The composition of verse is part of what it means to be human. It is, in one formulation and according to Robbins, “a response to threat.” It is a consolation in the face of suffering and our eventual death. It crosses chasms and creates bonds. It renders meaning and brings forth a shared language. Art appeals to the affections as well as to our rationality. It evokes a visceral response, one we cannot help but attempt to articulate, no matter how vain those articulations might be toward accurately conveying our experience.

Drawing from an insight of Harold Bloom, Robbins agrees that a text is “good for something.” Robbins writes that “we can make them do things for us.” We keep making texts and poetry and other works of art because they are “of use.” A thing that is of use is otherwise known as “equipment.” Robbins forwards this idea with a phrase from Kenneth Burke, who wrote “Poetry…is undertaken as equipment for living, as a ritualistic way of arming us to confront perplexities and risks.”

Robbins cites examples from Boethius and Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. He draws from Nietsche and Cameron Crowe. He shows how poetry and song provide forms that offer both consolation and community. He is carefully to say that “Poetry does not kiss the boo-boo and make it all better.” Poetry does not solve or minimize our problems, but it does provide “strategies” for us as we confront the human situation. Poetry offers us ways of responding. “It’s like in the song…”

Robbins notes how the various forms of poetry and pop music also serve to distinguish one community from another, citing the example of different Christian communities. Robbins writes, “The televangelical JAY-sus, the sober Jesu Christe of the Latin Mass, the radical Jewish peasant Yeshua of Nazareth of Guy Davenport’s translations, and the Gee-zuhhs of Norman Greenbaum’s “gotta have a friend in” are not the same sort of equipment.” And he’s right. They are not.

In this very same essay Robbins notes pop music captures and relays some “ideal” that is commonly known to everyone, which I understand to include notions about love, friendship, sorrow, adventure, tragedy, and others. Or, that is the intent. Some artists succeed, and others fail miserably.

My thoughts as I read this essay turned to the Psalms, which come to us as both poetry and song, and then more: prayer. They convey meaning; they create community. The psalms bind one heart to another in their recitation, in their singing, in their praying. Monastic rhythms are built on the Psalter, as are liturgical rhythms. Poetry becomes song, which then becomes prayer, or perhaps it is prayer that becomes poetry which then becomes song, or song becoming prayer that is then experienced as poetry. You get my drift.

For the Christian person, the wider testimony of Scripture is also text, a work of literature, God-breathed, around which a community has been formed. It contains wisdom and narrative that provide “strategies” for life. It is also a text, read differently by different communities, that has spawned multitudes, offering diverse forms of “equipment” for understanding the Divine and best stewarding the creation. This is why we continue to need the theologian, the prophet, and the critic, who can help us to discern the good, true, and beautiful from the wicked, false, and ugly. Useful tools can be taken up toward destructive ends, as we sadly know.

We also know that Christian communities continue to bring forth something new, all while drawing from the old. This is for good reason. We continue to live. We continue to face reality, and it continues to bring forth joys and sorrows. Most human beings want to live well. They continue to ask, “Who is well off?” and “What does it mean to be virtuous?” and “How do I become a person who is well off?” They make their best run at the answers, while holding out hope that the answers they find are good ones. Thomas Merton understood, “The spiritual life is first of all a life. It is not merely something to be known and studied, it is to be lived.” This is why all theology, in the end, is practical. It is to be “of use.”

Which is why I think Christians continue to write, and preach, and to “work out” salvation. We must continue to make, to create. Life offers us no other choice.

It is one thing to proclaim that God has given us all the equipment we need for living. It is another to put it to use.

Artistry and Doubt

I don’t think there’s an artist of any value who doesn’t doubt what they’re doing.

– Francis Ford Coppola

This is reassuring. Or perhaps not! Maybe I should spend more time doubting what I’m doing!

The problem with any endeavor that is worth doing, artistic or otherwise, is that showing your work can be terrifying. One of the greatest challenges I’ve faced in writing, speaking publicly, or in leadership has been the fear that my work will be rejected, that it won’t be received well, and that I’ll be labeled a flop or failure.

But paradoxically, that same fear has often led me to work harder, to pay greater attention to detail, to be open to correction and change, thus making sure my future efforts are of more value, not less. The result has been improvement and growth. Growth requires risk, vulnerability, boldness, daring, and courage. A little bit of doubt can foster humility. There’s always the chance that even your best efforts will fail. The odds are you have failed , and you will again. Keep going.

Your best work is still ahead.

True is Better than Done

While viewing a documentary I saw a sign above the desk of a journalist which said, “True is better than done.” I searched the web for the phrase and the top results were a series of links offering and explaining a different saying: “Done is better than perfect.” The former fits well with journalism and other forms of knowledge work. The latter jives better with creative enterprises like the visual arts, creative writing, or graphic design.

In creative work, it is possible to become so obsessed with imperfections that one never ships and never shows. Fear and doubt prevent completion, even if the work itself is excellent and all that is lacking is the click of the word “publish” or “send.” The artist holds off on sharing, believing the work could be perfect with one more tweak, a little more time, and one additional, elusive dash of inspiration.

But the work may be done. It may never be perfect. Done, rather than perfect, might be the state of affairs. All that is left is to unveil the work, take criticism, and refine your craft before telling the next story, composing the next image, or shooting the next subject. Creative work involves the viewer, the reader, as a critic. The critic helps the artist take the next step.

In knowledge work, such as journalism, you desire to write in a way that coheres with and explains reality. You want it to be true, not perfect, and not just done. There is only one way to be confident you are done: the story you have told is true. A true story does not have to be perfectly told. Journalism is meant to inform the citizenry, to put the truth to the public. It involves the citizens. The citizens help the knowledge worker take the next step, offering new leads, a new chapter, a follow up, another project.

Both the theologian and the preacher can learn from the knowledge worker and the creative worker (speaking of the arts; all work involves creativity). Theologians are like journalists, in this instance an example of the knowledge worker. They labor hard for the truth, and they help preachers and the whole of the church to familiarize themselves with the best of the tradition, the times, and their text, which in the Christian tradition is the Bible.

Preachers are theologians. Yet, there is a sense in which their vocation involves elements of the creative worker. Every sermon, every new venture, if it is led by the Spirit, will have a mysterious element, an element that is hidden and yet to be revealed, an outcome and a reception that can only be discovered in the sharing. Work may be presented as done but not perfect, yet also true. Once the Word of God is proclaimed by the preacher, delivered prayerfully and humbly, it is hoped that there is an illumination, a revelation of what God is up to in the midst of the world.

The theologian and the preacher, both, are doing work that involves the congregation, the church. The church helps the preacher and the theologian take the next step, using their voice to discern truth from error, and their lives as a testing ground for that which is offered, a place to explore and to discover the mysterious and manifold ways of the Spirit.