So there was a forum in Grand Rapids…

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So there was a forum in Grand Rapids last night on being gay and Christian.

Keep in mind this is a city where you can barely throw a stick without hitting a church. Or a Christian publisher.

With just two nights to go, only a dozen or so people had registered. But last night, Wealthy Street Theatre was packed.

The presentations were good. Some were really good. And sure, some parts could have been better. (Twenty minutes probably isn’t enough to meaningfully address all six “clobber texts” in the Bible.)

But what mattered more than the presentations were the people who made them.

A respected psychologist.

The son of a famous pastor.

A card-carrying member of the Christian Reformed Church.

A woman who described herself as representing the black Southern Pentecostal lesbian community.

All of them gay. All of them Christian. All of them saying, “Yes, it can be both.”

And people showed up. Most were ready to listen, judging by their demeanor during the presentations and the Q&A that followed.

Sure, 500 people is a tiny fraction of the local population. Heck, it’s a tiny fraction of the local Christian population. (This is Grand Rapids, remember.)

But it’s a start.

I suspect that most Christians have never truly examined their convictions on this issue. Most of us have inherited our beliefs and assumptions without ever really questioning them. Most of us have taken someone else’s word for it that there’s only one way to interpret the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality — assuming it addresses the subject at all. (Side note: when someone tells you there’s only one way to interpret a 2,000 year-old text, be suspicious.)

But I think all that is starting to change, as the safe, sanitized worlds we’ve built for ourselves begin to collapse…

As “LGBT” ceases to be a distant concept for most of us…

As people we know and love — sons, daughters, uncles, parents, friends — come out of the closet.

We owe them more than an unexamined theology of condemnation.

We owe it to them to not just cling to our inherited beliefs and assumptions by default.

We owe it to them to “test everything” — including our own convictions, prejudices, and assumptions.

We owe it to them to hold on to what is good.

All I can say is, I saw a lot that was good in Wealthy Street Theater last night.

I love Artprize, but…

OK, first of all… I love Artprize.

This was my first year living in Grand Rapids for Artprize, and it was a fantastic experience.

I love what it’s done for downtown GR. I love how it’s given a boost to a city that, let’s face it, could use one. Heck, it made me change my opinion of the DeVos family. (Sorry Amway… I still think Quixtar was a scourge upon humanity.)

Artrpize is brilliant in several ways. It gets art out of the museum (mostly) and into more accessible, less intimidating spaces. Artprize invites us to do more than just look at some sculptures and nod appreciatively, pretending we have any clue what they’re supposed to be. It collapses the space between art and the community it was made for.

Plus, by inviting just about any organization withinin a 3-mile radius to be a venue, Artprize raises the profile of local businesses you might otherwise never have stepped into. Absolutely, unequivocally brilliant. Well done, Artprize. DeVos for governor! (Wait.)

But then there’s the trifling matter of who wins Artrpize, and how.

OF COURSE the art intellegentsia will bemoan the fact that such an overtly religious and derivative piece like “The Crucifixion” by Mia Tavonatti won first prize.

OF COURSE some on the right will dismiss any such criticism as yet another example of the godless secular humanism being forced down our throats by liberals who don’t like Jesus and despise unborn babies.

And OF COURSE Artrprize wouldn’t be nearly as successful if it weren’t, in essence, a popularity contest. And when you hold such a contest in a place like West Michigan, “The Crucifixion” is likely to win.

Personally, I’m not bothered that a religiously-themed piece won Artprize. I happen to be a Christian. I like Jesus and have nothing against unborn babies. (I used to be one.) What bothers me is that there doesn’t seem to be anything remotely fresh or original about “The Crucifixion.” It’s entirely derivative.

The rendering itself is 20th-century Sunday school art with a dash of Thomas Kinkade. The medium is slightly more interesting, but let’s be honest: making religious art out of mosaic tile isn’t exactly breaking new ground, is it?

And if realism is what we’re after (I’m not sure it was in this case, but it certainly seems plausible) then from a historical perspective, this can hardly be said to be a good representation of Jesus or the manner of his death. If it were, then Jesus wouldn’t look like a young Tim McGraw, there wouldn’t be any horse-shaped clouds in the background, and the cross wouldn’t be FLOATING. (Romans were quite adept at crucifixion, but I’m fairly certain they failed to master the art of levitating their victims.)

The real problem is that art is supposed to express something new, or at least express something in a new way. No, art shouldn’t be provocative simply to provoke. But nor should it merely cater to what you already like. Art should push the limits of creative expression and open your eyes to possibilities you never even knew were there. (Which, for what it’s worth, is why Steve Jobs is rightly remembered as an artist, whatever else he may have been.)

“The Crucifixion,” on the other hand, is exactly what the people of West Michigan wanted. It obligingly panders without pushing the viewer one inch outside of their comfort zone. It doesn’t make you think, because it conforms precisely to what you already think.

The actual crucifixion is ripe for artistic exploration. Countless renderings have yet to exhaust the creative possibilities. But simply parroting what’s been done ten thousand times before is not art. It may win you the most votes in conservative West Michigan, but it doesn’t actually change anything. Or anyone.

Which is why for all its brilliance, Artprize in its current form doesn’t actually cultivate art appreciation. Art is supposed to challenge people, speak truths they may not wish to hear, depict possibilities they may not wish to imagine. It’s not a coincidence that so many great artists are reviled before they achieve fame and popularity, which often come long after they’re gone. (Vincent Van Gogh, anyone?) That’s why a popularity contest can never be a vehicle for identifying truly compelling, transformative art.

But I still like Artprize.

The epicenter of progressive culture

Earlier this year, Newsweek magazine identified America’s top 10 dying cities, one of which was my very own Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Having lost $30 million and close to a million readers in a single year, Newsweek knows a thing or two about dying.

In response, Grand Rapids’ own Rob Bliss decided to do this, with the help of locally-based Creo Productions and about 5,000 Grand Rapidians (is that what we’re called?)…

Had to give a shout out…especially to my friends at Creo. I’ve gotten to work with them on a couple video projects and am always impressed.


Update: Newsweek is distancing itself from the original “dying cities” story and showing some love for GR on their Facebook page. Thanks, Newsweek. We hope you don’t die either.