Cultural Artifacts



The course examines the interplay of philosophical, theological, sociological, historical, and cutting-edge theories of culture that affect what is commonly known as “postmodernist” thought and professional practice. Students will understand what culture is and why it must be “engaged” in all dimensions of both theology and ministry. Topics include digital technology, cyberculture, music, and the global consumer economy.

poetry’s green pastures

So You, too...
by Denise Levertov
So you, too, are a part of me. My solitude
always beginning, as grass grows, is a tide
running at daybreak out of the grayrose east
to slide over the sand, encircle
the drowned beauty, the dead bird, the old boot;
my life explores the caves, pours into pools,
hunts with the starry hunters. I stretch out
fingers of grass, fingers of flame, and touch
my own name engraved on air, own flesh
walking towards me down a dream. I wheel
as a wave pounces, unmask the stranger:
you too a part of me, I enter the gate of your eyes,
my beggar, my brother, answer of the sea.

I’ve been visiting and revisiting Denise and her magic pen since returning from Len & Liz Sweet’s Orcas Island home last week. While with the Sweets and other friends, I shared part of my desire to find fresh perspective in some specific spheres of life, toward that end Len guided me back to Levertov’s green pastures.

Peace, dwight

Jesus makes me smile

My nephew, Glendon, sent me a link to a few videos by Vintage21. Too funny. Click on the images to stream the clips.

peace, dwight

fun with audio

My friend JPaul sent me a link to a really interesting animated short by J. J. Sedelmaier. It appeared on SNL. Click here to watch it.

Peace, dwight

soul: mystery, or a load of crap?

My friend, Don Hutton, has written a really beautiful and interesting piece. Take a few moments to listen for yourself within its narrative and questioning.

peace, dwight

soul: mystery, or a load of crap?

by Don Hutton 

dan snowden and i talked last sunday. it was good to talk with dan. his clarity is refreshing. we talked about the creative impulse, the creative drive. he raised some good questions: what is this impulse all about? what place should it take in ones life? is it definable in terms of achievement? how does one measure artistic success?

i once had a roommate named scott wessel. scott was a tech geek before the label was created. i call him a geek, but scott would object. he did ride a motorcycle, but even then he did so wearing a full-body leather suit, which was color-coordinated to match his helmet, and bike. scott was great with computers. this was like 1989, so he is probably a billionaire by now. scott and i had several disagreements while we were roommates. the conversation between dan and i last sunday caused me to remember one in particular. its possible i had not thought about this once in the intervening seventeen years.

scott was a fan of the band poison. if you don’t remember them, poison was among the genre common at the time and often referred to as hair bands – sort of a glam meets heavy metal meets generic pop/rock. scott and i had an argument about the relative merits of poison and ray charles. i told him that ray charles kicks their ass. scott was incredulous.

“how can you even compare the two?” he fairly sputtered as he turned up his poison cd until the speakers in his wall-size entertainment system vibrated the room.

“listen to that compared to your stuff, its just so much more dynamic. listen to the guitar.” he bumped the volume up even a little more as the guitar launched into an incendiary lead “and the bass, do you feel that?” he asked.

i did feel it.

“get me your cd.” he demanded, and I did.

“now listen to yours.”

i was beginning to feel like i was in a paper towel commercial – me playing the part of the woman whose pitiful generic brand disintegrates immediately on contact with liquid.

the opening riff of “What’d I Say” began… that sparse, rudimentary keyboard line, unaccompanied for the first few measures.

“you see?” he asked, like an impatient tutor showing a kid how to solve an algebra problem, “its totally flat.”

to my own surprise, i did see. even though the music had been “digitally re-mastered” it had an unmistakably worn patina about it, like old leather, or the handle on your grandma’s wooden spoon. and even when the band kicked in, and hit their groove, the music had a sense of restraint. to me it was delicious tension, like the band was managing to suspend itself on the precarious brink of utter abandon without falling off. but what i heard as restraint, scott heard as boring, even timid in comparison to the heavy-handed approach of poison and their ilk.

somehow seeds of doubt had begun to take root in my mind. i made some lame protest that poison would be forgotten years after people were still being turned on by ray charles, but my heart wasn’t all the way in it. before i could have any hope of relating to scott what I hear in ray charles, i had to reconvince myself. poison was on the stereo again, and I was trying to find words to articulate my tastes – what I heard in ray charles that I didn’t hear in poison. the word soul kept coming to mind, but at that moment it rang hollow in my brain. what is it supposed to mean?

one thing i knew for sure, it would mean nothing to scott. he would scoff at the notion. taking about it to him would be like describing orange to someone who is color blind. the thing is though, scotts not dumb. by most of the worlds standards, he’s probably smarter than me. if soul meant nothing to him, and i could find no way to express it in terms he would appreciate, what is it worth? if soul is so easily missed, and so difficult to prove, what is it really? maybe its all bullshit. maybe its just something people like me invented to rationalize why the stuff we like kicks ass over the kind of stuff scott likes.

and that brought me back to dan’s questions. because to me artistic achievement and soul are inextricable. without soul you may have a level of technical virtuosity, but you will never have artistic achievement. conversely, with soul one who is not technically proficient may still create great art. in that sense, soul would be more like the evidence, the proof of artistic achievement. but how can something so nebulous serve as a proof? if soul is so marginally perceptible, even arguably mythic, then how could one ever be certain it has been attained? and these questions led me to think of jackson pollock.

by his own admission, jackson pollock couldn’t draw. he was an art student, he studied drawing, and concluded that he would never be able to do it well. but he still wanted to be an artist. maybe that doesn’t sound so outlandish in retrospect, but try to imagine how audacious, delusional, foolish it must have seemed at the time. nobody had ever been out of their mind enough to suggest that someone who could not draw could still be an artist. it is only because of jackson pollock that the notion does not seem entirely absurd even now. he rewrote the rules, and in doing so he became not only an artist, but one of the most influential artists ever. just for a moment though, imagine a different history.

in this history we still have jackson pollock the art student, and he still cant draw, and he still wants to be an artist. he still moves to new york and lives in squalor, eating shards of broken fortune cookies he gets by the bag full from the nearby factory where they are made. he still refuses to get a real job so he can earn money to buy food. he still insists that he needs all his time to paint. and he still does paint, for hours and hours in his studio space, the otherwise abandoned industrial building. freezing in winter, sweltering in summer, he dances around his canvasses dripping, splattering, and plopping. he still uses house paint. this is not so much, as some critics in real history will later claim, an artistic statement as a pragmatic choice. he can find house paint by the bucket-full for a fraction of what he would pay for a single tube of the oils used by real artists. so you may ask what is different about our imagined history.

imagine that years go by like this, but there is no gallery owner who decides to champion his work. his family, even his closest friends, everyone is embarrassed for him. they are losing patience, and who can blame them? he isn’t getting any younger. this starving artist shtick isn’t cute anymore. he admits that he cant draw, what is he trying to prove? give it a rest already, grow up! they tried ignoring it, figuring it was just a phase and he would grow weary of it, if they just gave it no attention. then they tried being supportive, maybe this is his way of seeking attention. they feigned interest in his ridiculous drippings and splatterings. that didn’t work either. he just kept on as before.

and that is more-or-less where our imagined history ends – fade to credits as an aging jackson pollock dances, somewhat less nimbly now, around another canvass in the same old industrial building, another bag of broken fortune cookies in the foreground, waiting to serve as his next meal.

so what is the artistic achievement of jackson pollock in our imagined history? lets say his body of work is identical in both versions, but in our version nobody buys it. no critics write about it, nobody even really looks at it. he dies. the canvasses are scrapped, or maybe salvaged by some resourceful artist, one who knows how to draw. did he ever become an artist? if so, was he a great artist? how would you know?

maybe those questions can be answered, if soul is real. if each person is given a unique spiritual identity, a soul, then wouldn’t any artistic expression springing from this source be necessarily unique? maybe the genius of jackson pollock lies not so much on his canvasses as in the fact that he created them. because to create those works, did he not have to first decide that his vision, his being, his soul, had an intrinsic value distinct from any response it may generate from others? isn’t that where his art came from? and maybe that’s what we see in ray charles too. maybe that’s why people are still turned on by him.

i have heard that ray charles, when he first started singing professionally, sounded just like nat king cole. nat king cole was the premier black male vocalist of the time. ray charles must have understood, if only subconsciously, that sounding like nat king cole would give him instant credibility. people could hear someone who sounded like a performer already accepted as great and easily conclude that this new fellow must be okay too. ray charles could have conceivably made a decent living singing like nat king cole. maybe that’s where the soul came in. maybe ray charles had it, and maybe it wouldnt let him be. maybe it pushed him outside of the comfortable nat king cole zone and into realms where nobody had gone before. nat king cole was great for nat king cole, because he sang his own way. and ray charles had to sing his own way too, maybe because ray had soul.

but is soul, and therefore artistic achievement, simply a matter of doing your own thing? what if your own thing sucks? as several folks have pointed out, especially other musicians with whom i have played, my stuff tends toward the unorthodox. is that sufficient to suggest my stuff is good art? does it matter that nobody wants to hear it? can you have soul and still suck? maybe its never been done that way before because its just a very bad idea.

being first must count for something, but then jackson pollock didnt develop abstract expressionism alone, nor out of whole cloth. neither did ray charles sing in a way that was entirely alien from everything that went before. so why are they great? or are they great? even today a lot of people scoff at the work of jackson pollock. they say things like, “i have drop clothes at home that look as good,” or other dismissive remarks, usually far less clever. if they’re wrong when they say this of his work, how could they be right to say it of any works done by the myriad of artists who have come after and worked in his style? if not for some label on a wall, or the word of some art guru, could you tell the difference? most of the time i cant. and we’ve already met at least one fellow who finds nothing to like in ray charles. if such folks really are missing something, what is it?

maybe they are wrong because enough other people agree that jackson pollock and ray charles are great artists. maybe its american idol on a global and historic scale. maybe some kind of critical or public approval is the necessary ingredient. have there not been possibly millions of people who fearlessly, recklessly followed their vision, defying convention, going where no one had gone before, and enduring a lifetime of deprivation and obscurity? since i have invoked the specter of american idol, think william hung, only if he never got famous. lest i be a hypocrite, any standard by which I would judge others, I must also apply to my own work. maybe obscurity is its own reward. maybe soul is proven by success, and mass disinterest indicates that you lack soul. maybe my obscurity is well earned, and it simply proves that i suck

maybe our imagined history of is jackson pollock nothing more than a fairy tale – entirely implausible? maybe he was who he was simply because his work could not be denied, or ignored, or overlooked. maybe his work was so compelling that he could not help but succeed. maybe that was his greatness. maybe it would have been impossible for an artist to do the work of jackson pollock without becoming the success he was.

if this really is the answer, then i think we live in the most dismal of all possible worlds. it means that failure on one level means utter and abject failure on all levels. according to this model i am, artistically speaking, the undeniable perpetrator of a large, steaming pile of crap, one which shows absolutely zero promise of turning to gold any time soon. quite the opposite, it seems my obscurity is gaining momentum. each day more and more people care less and less about my music. in fact I believe that vast numbers of people are, even at this very moment, reaching unprecedented levels of indifference regarding my work.

i guess have no real choice but to hope for soul, or something like it, something that exists outside the realm of popular/commercial/critical success. in that sense, its really not even an article of faith, so much as a necessity of life, like air or water. poison sold a butt-load of records. who am i to say ray charles kicks their ass? but i will say it, even again. there must be some quintessential element that lifts some work above the banal, and which draws its life from sources that have nothing to do with money, or fame, or even technical proficiency. call it soul or something else, but i must believe it exists, and that it is somehow there to be grasped by anyone willing to pursue it.

it’s why jackson pollock would have been a great artist if he had died an unknown, and its why ray charles kicks ass, despite the conspicuous lack of searing guitar solos in his music. it is why i can hope to touch that holy ground inhabited by all the artists who have inspired me. it’s why i can hope to do so regardless of whether anyone else cares to listen. either that, or it’s a load of crap.

Try this Pollock inspired link.

God’s grandeur

I’ve gone on prayers walks; I’ve gone on semiotic walks; I’ve gone on nature walks but until this morning I had never even heard of poetry walks. Paul Steinke guided a number of us into one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ many glorious pieces. After laboring in vain to get us to memorize the poem he took us on the road, blessing the early morning silence of our learning community’s spaces with verse.

I encourage you to read this modern psalm out loud at least three or four times. Let the sounds resonate through your being and feel it. Let the images dance in the eye or your heart and see it, and let the words have their way with you . . . surrender to it.


God’s Grandeur

Gerard Manley Hopkins

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.


peace, dwight

metaphor of movement

“Rick Bass, a very good writer, is another

Montana neighbor of mine…. Besides being an excellent writer, Bass is a fervent environmentalist…. Environmentalists care deeply about this creation, but a lot of them are also pretty mean – angry, sometimes violent.  Bass is small of stature, elf-like, energetic, and laughing, it seems, most of the time. He holds parties for the loggers and miners, working for common ground, developing a language of courtesy and understanding. He wrote an essay recently that I count as required reading for anyone who cares about living well as North American followers of Jesus who are immersed in this impatient, shortcut-addictive culture.
“He writes that it used to be that whenever he was confronted with a complex and difficult task, he imagined himself patiently laying down one brick after another until eventually he got the job done…recently he has changed his metaphor. He had been reading about glaciers. A glacier is the most powerful force the world has ever seen. Nothing, literally nothing, can stop a glacier. A glacier is formed by the falling of snow that collects over a period of time – an inch today, a quarter of an inch yesterday, a mere skiff of powder last week.  As the snow deepens, the weight compresses.  Ice is formed, and then more snow, which becomes more ice, year after year.  Nothing happens for a long time, but when glacier is sixty-four feet thick it starts to move, and nothing can stop it.

“…[Bass] notes that one theory about the origin of glaciers is that they are ‘the result of a wobble, a hitch, in the earth’s rotation…. Glaciers get built or not built, simply, miraculously, because the earth is canting a single one-trillionth of a degree in this direction for a long period of time, rather than in that direction.’ And then this comment: ‘When I am alone in the woods, and the struggle seems insignificant or futile, or when I am in a public meeting and am being kicked all over the place, I tell myself that little things matter—and I believe that they do. I believe that even if your heart leans just a few degrees to the left or the right of center, that with enough resolve, which can substitute for mass, and enough time, a wobble will one day begin, and the ice will begin to form, where for a long time previous there might have been none. “‘Keep it up for a lifetime or two or three, and then one day—it must—the ice will begin to slide’ (The Roadless Yak, Lyons Press, 114).

“Or, to replace his metaphor with ours: we’ll see… Christ playing in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs, lovely in eyes not his, to the Father through the features of men’s and women’s faces.”



Rick Bass                Eugene Peterson

The above quote is from Eugene Peterson’s, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology.  Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005, 337-8.

Peace, dwight


Artist Ed Traub recently passed a great quote on to me from Mark Rothko’s book: Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art.

“Like the old ideal of God, the abstraction itself in its nakedness is never directly apprehensible to us. As in the case of God, we can know its manifestations only through works, which, while never completely revealing the total abstraction in the round, symbolize it by the manifestation of different faces of itself in works of art. Therefore, to feel beauty is to participate in the abstraction through a particular agency. In a sense, this is a reflection of the infiniteness of reality. For should we know the appearance of the abstraction itself, we would constantly reproduce only its image. As it is, we have the exhibition of the infinite variety of its inexhaustible facets, for which we should be thankful.

“Let us consider the case of our relationship to our friends. We love them with a common love because we all participate in a common prototype of humanity, but because each human being is a new and different manifestation of this prototype we want to know more about each one. Yet we should not be able to enjoy our friends at all if they could not be referred to the common prototype, for through the recognition of this identity with the prototype we are able to make sensible observations of differences.”

Peace, dwight

forward no more

This made me smile.  Click here.

peace, dwight

a poem for labor day

Things to Think
by Robert Bly

Think in ways you’ve never thought before.
If the phone rings, think of it as carrying a message
Larger than anything you’ve ever heard,
Vaster than a hundred lines of Yeats.

Think that someone may bring a bear to your door,
Maybe wounded and deranged; or think that a moose
Has risen out of the lake, and he’s carrying on his antlers
A child of your own whom you’ve never seen.

When someone knocks on the door, think that he’s about
To give you something large: tell you you’re forgiven,
Or that it’s not necessary to work all the time, or that it’s
Been decided that if you lie down no one will die.

* * *

peace, dwight