C3 Blog

Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey

It’s winter now. I’m not a farmer, but if I was, I’d be turning soil and planting soon. What a poignant picture of hope and trust. While the landscape around us shows so few signs of life, the farmer prepares for the life to come.

Beyond this hope lies another important truth. A farmer tills and plants in the soil he is given. He weathers the seasons that nature brings, be they good or bad.

There is a lesson here for artists, and all of us, really. A question to be answered. How will we turn the soil beneath our feet? What will come of the dirt under our fingernails? The long day’s work ahead? Only time will tell. I’m reminded of Emerson’s great words on this task. Words much better than my own.

“There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.”  - R. W. Emerson

Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey

No matter how much red and green is wrapped around light poles and presents this time of year, in most of the country, the signature color of a December landscape is grey. Here in Central Texas, the trees are bare, and their leafless branches stretch into the cloudy grey canvas behind them. It’s what I call Bon Iver weather. After the summers we have here, I have grown to love Bon Iver weather.

I grew up on the East Coast of Florida, where there are even fewer distinct weather seasons than Central Texas. Ten out of twelve months are beach weather. Physical beauty of the natural landscape, be it brilliant sunsets over the swamps around highway 50 or sunrises over the ocean, was woven into my visual childhood. Then I moved to Cincinnati for grad school.

Around my birthday, in mid-February, it occurred to me that I had been in a bad mood for about three months. Birthdays tend to make us take stock in things, and it dawned on me that I had barely seen the sun (or many colors other than grey) since early November. This was surprising, given the amazing musical experiences during that time. These grey skies had been the backdrop to my first “real” conducting appearance, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. What a perfect soundtrack to the serious appearance of winter in Cincinnati. But still, I was fighting a sense of deep sadness that these serious skies had brought.

Grey might be the most hated color of the palette. Who welcomes grey hairs? Who writes songs about the memories of grey skies? Who extols the virtues of the grey areas of any argument? During bowl season, you will hear no cheers of, “Let’s go grey!” as the soundtrack for any goal line stand.

But coming from the hot, blue summer, the polarized blue and red of an election year, and the great need for the slower pace that these grey skies bring, grey feels like a welcomed friend to me now. Maybe we need to lean into the grey. It might be where summer’s burns are soothed, where blue and red find common ground, and where the run-weary find a sweatshirt, a couch, and a movie. After you’ve had your Christmas movie fill, I’d recommend Gerhard Richter Painting on Netflix. It gave me a new love for his series of grey paintings, one of which I used for the image for this post. Grey is good.

Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey

A lot of talented, thoughtful voices in the faith community are talking about storytelling these days. Those voices probably inspired me to consider "telling a great story" as a principle of worship design. Great communication, be it worship, politics, or marketing, often comes down to presenting a compelling story. One thing I haven’t heard a lot about recently is the importance of a compelling villain, or dissenting voice.

For me, the most compelling villains are complicated, human, believable, and have a capacity for telling the truth about things others don’t. Great stories establish all of these things, and sometimes give us a window into why these villains became who they are. Somehow, the depth of the villain is crucial in establishing the depth of the hero and of good. Without it, I find it hard to invest in the story, and no one seems worth rooting for. Some of the worst stories not only have one-dimensional villains, but they tell a simplistic story of redemption. The redemption of a villain is a delicate thing for a storyteller to pull off. The redemption of a well-written villain is that much more difficult.

As you can probably tell, I’m not a writer. I’m a musician. The driving force behind great music is tension and release. The same is true of a story. The more compelling the tension is, the more satisfying the release or resolution. The way a composer, a performer, or a storyteller manages this goes a long way in determining how skillful she is at her craft.

How thoughtful are we in presenting or engaging our dissenting voices? I hesitate to label dissenting voices as enemies. They aren’t. But they do represent the tension in our story. The care with which we present tension is fundamental to presenting a compelling truth.

David Bazan is one of the most thoughtful dissenting voices I can think of. Although our beliefs differ in some ways, he is no enemy. His time at UMHB was one of the highlights of my time here so far. In March of 2013, Eef Barzelay, who also seems to be a thoughtful non-believer, will sit down with us for what will be another highlight for me. Thoughtful voices of dissention are crucial to the conversation C3 seeks to foster.


Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey

Many of us have mixed feelings about Pandora radio. As an artist, I’m concerned about how artists are compensated for their work. As a listener, I'm concerned at how lesser known artists used to be more prominent, but changing (improving?) contracts with record labels have squeezed them from the playlist. Two years ago, Pandora was a great way to discover new, independent music. Not any more. On the other hand, the concept is both innovative and engaging. Whether it’s called Pandora, Spotify, or something else, this type of radio is here for a while.

On their site, Pandora explains that their music is classified by “melody, harmony, instrumentation, rhythm, vocals, lyrics…and more!” Wikipedia explains that there are 400 different musical attributes combined into 2,000 focus traits that make up the Music Genome Project. This is all part of a growing, pervasive trend toward hyper-targeted marketing. A world where the ads or options you see are specifically chosen for you, based upon what you like. If you read my post on the importance of acquired tastes, you understand some of my personal concerns with this.

From my experience, the characteristic of religion is, by far, the most dominant trait in the Music Genome. According to Pandora, religious content defines artists, no matter how much they may resist the label “Christian Artist.” Is Gungor’s Ghosts Upon the Earth really similar to Tenth Avenue North? Is John Mark McMillan’s Carolina really similar to Hillsong or Phil Wickham? Only if their religious content defines them.

I understand that religion is an important, even defining characteristic. I also understand that the phrase “If you like _______ you might like _______.” is a phrase Pandora uses to show its suggestions. Despite these things, it seems to me that our faith community and our artists should be (and are) interested in being part of a larger conversation; one that isn’t rooted in subculture or special interest. How can we break free from Pandora’s box?

Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey

One of the greatest mysteries of worship is the tension between its timelessness and its ever-changing reality. History has shown that we struggle to find balance, and have a tendency to gravitate toward extremes. Like any kind of fundamentalism, a strong case can be made for extreme orthodoxy and for an idol of innovation. Just assemble a long list of scriptures or historical wisdom that extol your narrow virtue and ignore the ones that extol any opposing virtue. It’s a safe bet that extremism and black & white answers will always be in style. Dangerous and unwise, but always in style.

While a lot of observations about history and culture can help make a case for innovation and technology, does scripture support this? The scarlet letter of worship criticism is “U,” as in unbiblical. Easy to say, tough to prove, even tougher to disprove. Can we construct a scriptural case for technology being inextricably linked to worship? Sure, we can point to technology’s role in culture and our need to reflect that culture, but can we say with certainty that scripture intentionally links these things? I think we can.

The scriptural link between worship and innovation is a strong one. It’s represented by the words “new song,” which appear nine times in the Bible. Six Psalms include the phrase, a song of Isaiah (in chapter 42), and two times in Revelations. It is, without question, the single most common phrase related to worship in all of scripture. A case could be made that “songs” were the media of their day, and these scriptures could be interpreted as calls to continually innovate. Songs were so central to worship of the Biblical Era, this innovation seems to extend beyond music. But what about technology?

If orthodoxy is your goal, the only instrument you will allow in worship is the human voice. It is the most timeless and unchanging of all instruments. As soon as any man-made instrument is added, you’ve linked your worship to technology and perpetual change. Congregations that forbid the use of non-vocal instruments usually do so for one of two reasons. Either they mourn the destruction of the Temple (as with Orthodox Christians and Jews), or they do so because they believe in the Regulative Principle of worship (as with Restoration Movement churches like the Church of Christ). Neither forbids non-vocal instruments in an effort to avoid technology or change, but the result is clear.

If we go back to those psalm references I mentioned before, we see that the author will make music for God “on the ten-stringed lyre” (Psalm 144:9, 33:2), with “timbrel and harp” (Psalm 149:3), and other instruments throughout the Psalms. Those harps, lyres, and timbrels are machines. Technology. Technology that was changing drastically throughout the Biblical Era. Just as the new “songs” represent innovations beyond music, these instruments represent technology beyond music as well.

The New Testament is wonderfully vague about the “how” of worship. Even Paul’s letters can be interpreted as more situational than universal in purpose. Clearly this wasn’t by accident. If “how” was as important as “why,” much more would have been written as the Kingdom was opened to all races and cultures. Not only that, but God clearly ties worship to innovation and technology. It’s as if he forced us out to sea, far from the safety of shore, compelled to seek his wisdom and direction for direction and our very survival.

Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey

Having just returned from a conference for the National Association of Schools of Music, I’m struck by a reminder that no matter what our particular area of sub-culture, be it Christianity, academia, musicians, etc., it is tempting to define challenges as unique to our community when, in reality, they are often more far-reaching and universal.

The NASM finds itself wrestling with three particular issues that I’ve heard defined as “Church” or “Christian” problems. The first is the question of synthesis. In other words, in an increasingly segregated educational system where credibility is largely based on specialization, how do we teach students to synthesize all of the specific skills and knowledge they have into a meaningful whole? From a design perspective, how do we make sure that the smallest elements actively relate to the overall design? Organizationally, how do we create a system of flow between the needs of the individual and the needs of the organization? Within worship, how does a deep personal experience connect the individual to a community and a tradition that spans throughout space and time?

The NASM is also interested in how to meet the growing needs of a collaborative, creative, and global marketplace. How do we design curricula and experiences that give our students the tools they need to not only survive, but to flourish in this environment? The implications for areas beyond music are obvious, and the conversations about issues of collaboration, creativity, and globalization are as relevant to worship thinkers as any time in history.

As you can imagine, the NASM finds itself confronted with the issue of how to train commercial musicians as the field and related technologies rapidly expand, but at the same time, uphold its virtue of preserving our rich and expansive Western classical music tradition. How can academia be responsive, but not reactionary? In short, music schools are in the midst of their own “worship war,” and my hope is that those of us who experienced this phenomenon within the church can help bring perspective to the academy.

Not only are many of our “Christian” problems farther reaching than we realize, there are important opportunities for an important exchange of ideas from one subculture to another, as well as between subcultures and super-culture. A reality that is both comforting and humbling.

What it looks like when Christians care about art
Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey

The obvious answer to this question is made by a rich and diverse history of artists and lovers of art who see the work of the artists as the work of the Father. Who could I possibly choose to single out without drawing more attention for those who I neglected than the one I chose? The decision kind of forced me to neglect all of these possibilities in favor of a seven-year-old you’ve never heard of and whose work you would probably guess was done by a four-year-old.

Drew has been assessed all over on the Autistic Spectrum. In general, those who stand to make money providing him with therapy tend to diagnose him as more Autistic than those whose job it is to maximize government resources to meet his and thousands of other kids’ needs. Regardless, no one looks at his drawings and tells us our son is the Picasso of his generation.

Studies show he is precisely at the age when most kids encounter some of the most impressionable messages about whether they are good at art, which usually translates into whether they are deemed “creative.” The danger in this isn’t just the potential loss of artistic potential. I’m not so concerned that Drew becomes a professional artist as I am that he understands the fundamental need to speak through and learn from the artistic voice that is innate in all of us.

In an effort to hopefully beat the world to the punch, I struck up a conversation with Drew about Basquiat. I told him that his work reminded me of Basquiat’s work. We Googled images of the artist and his work, and he dug it. Then we did the same for Picasso and Pollock.

Drew had a homework assignment to create a family crest, so we took a trip to Wal-Mart for some acrylic paints, brushes, and oil pastels (like crayons). Then we did a series of studies or imitations of these four painters. The rough figures of Basquiat, the disfigured, cubist faces of Picasso, and the slinging & dripping of Pollock. All of it.

Then Drew painted each family member in a different style. Mom was a wild-eyed Basquiat character, baby Jay a Picasso mash-up of him and an elephant (Jay’s favorite animal), I was a Pollock-like mess of drippings and slung paint, and Drew, he was in his own style. In the middle we put Drew’s Latin class to work (for once he wasn’t using the second half of the word Benedictus as a second-grade curse word). He wrote IMAGO DEI, and we surrounded that with cut/pasted words of Picasso’s “All children are born artists” quote.

I doubt Drew knew why I was going to such trouble for the assignment. I doubt he fully understood the realities of the words we placed at the center of our crest. I doubt the work will ever make a dime for him, which makes it a net loss of $35. I also doubt that the crest alone will stem the tide of messages to the contrary that await him. But I know what it looks like to see him care.

I’m adding a pic of the crest to show that the finished product isn’t as compelling as the story of how it came about, even though the finished product is how Drew’s work will be judged. Somehow it makes a better story to see that it isn’t as amazing as it sounds. Sometimes art (and people) with the most compelling story seem remarkable unremarkable at first glance. Maybe another reason to care.

Why Should Christians Care About Art?
Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey

I’ve studied at some of the most prestigious conservatories in the US, and, for the most part, we spent the entire time answering the question of “how” to be a great artist. Rarely if ever did we discuss “why.” Since graduating, I don’t think there has been a day of my career that hasn’t forced me to answer “why.“ At every turn I’m asked why anyone should care about what I do as an artist. I write this to show that Christians aren’t alone in their confusion about the role of art in culture. But there are reasons why Christians should care even more than anyone else. I’m not convinced that we do.

…because of worship.

It would be easy to simply point to the historical connection between the arts and worship. You cannot tell the story of worship without the story of its art. You cannot tell the story of art without the story of worship. It would be easy to point to the constant call in scripture to “sing to the Lord a new song.” Implicit in this is the need to continually create art. But these reasons, no matter how true, seem too easy. Maybe they are victims of their own merit, so tried and true that they loose their impact.

 The German painter Gerhard Richter has said that art is man's only means of transcendence and that religion can no longer provide it. I don’t agree. But I don’t completely disagree. The arts are designed to engage with mystery and that which cannot be completely described. Transcendence lives in the indescribable. What is worship without the indescribable? What better means to engage with the indescribable than the arts?

…because of truth and meaning.

We all exist in a time a place. We’re subject to that, no matter how much we might want to live outside of it. As timeless as scripture and truth are, our understanding of them is impacted by our time and place. The time in which we live today is still heavily influenced by the Enlightenment and the Reformation, where logic and reason became primary vehicles to truth and biblical interpretation. There are amazing benefits to this. There were also sacrifices. A primary sacrifice was our understanding of truth as a holistic thing, wed to meaning, and engaged with both our right and left brain. As much as we may think we can reduce truth and meaning to code, we can’t.

…because of people.

If ever you find yourself in a good old-fashioned piety contest, remember that the rules are the opposite of a pie-eating contest. The two may sound alike when you say them, but you win one by consuming as much as possible. The other one, you win by abstaining. “Oh, I don’t watch that. I’m a Christian.” We have a winner. There is something to be said for moderation and boundaries, but there is also something to be said for eating as necessary to sustain life and a gift from God to help us enjoy that life. If abstinence from art is next to Godliness, only the monk wins.

I believe the way we interact with art mirrors, if not informs how we interact with people. We need to lean into scripture and Christian community, but we have to lean into a secular world as well. In, not of. Balance. It’s more work than imbalance, but it is what we are called to be as followers of Christ. I’m calling for a changing of the rules. Let meaningful engagement trump abstinence.

Make no mistake, art is serious stuff to the Kingdom of God and to the Christian existence. This is why I care.

Why We Don’t Care [or care too much] About Creativity
Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey

[This post is a counterpoint to a new post I've written for ECHO here.]

“Are you creative?” If you want a window into someone’s self-image, ask them that question and study how they answer. I say “how they answer” because it’s a yes or no question. The message is probably more in the delivery than in the content.

If you want to double down, ask them, “Can you sing?” Another yes or no question that can tell you a lot about a person’s self image. Ask them if they play the piano and you might get some disappointment over quitting lessons as a kid (usually followed by a story about how much they hated lessons and were forced to take them), but you probably won’t get the same depth of personal judgment. It will probably resemble the way they answer questions about whether they are good at math. There will likely be a veiled sense of “I should work on that,” or “I’ve been told I need to work on that.” But, for some reason, math and piano seem like things people do. Singing and creativity seem like part of who they are.

So why is it that our own understanding of our creativity or singing ability runs so deep? That would make a great sociological study. Maybe even a neurological one. I would love to see what happens in the brain of a person when they answer those questions. I wonder if the two things run so deep with people that it blocks their path to living into their calling. Have we as a culture assigned this weight to these things? Is that weight woven into our psyche from birth?

I don’t know the answer. I do find it interesting how almost every scripture about worship includes an instruction to sing. Nine times that instruction is don’t just sing, but sing something new. Something creative. Whether you are a believer or not, you were made to worship. You were made to sing. You were made in the image of creativity personified. That much I do know. Is it possible that Satan uses this deeply imprinted identity to create deeply embedded insecurity and disappointment in us? 

Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey

Artists, at their best, hold up a mirror to the world around them. The merit of their work lies in the accuracy of their depiction and the compelling nature of the reality they reflect. In a sense, the same could be said of the worshiping community. The merit of our work lies in the accuracy with which we reflect both the glory of the Father and the reality of the human condition through which we worship.

 Realism. Abstraction. Collage. Allegory. Poetry. These are all colors and shapes of lenses. Intentionality, care, authenticity, even excellence, are not the same thing as pride. Surely we can bring these attributes to our role as worshipers and not lose sight of the fact that we are jars of clay. Broken. Sometimes in pieces. Sometimes repaired. May we should embrace the beauty of our scars. Perhaps the very things that challenge our temptation to be prideful are the very things that make us beautiful.