My Three-Cornered Hat
When I was in Spain, playing violin recitals and concertos, we went to see the theater we would be performing in: Seville’s Lope de Vega. When we arrived, there was a group finishing up their last performance of da Falla’s “The Three-Cornered Hat”, complete with Picasso sets and props.
The three-cornered hat that I am referring to here, however, is not da Falla’s composition.
In life we all wear a number of Hats. A woman may be a housewife, part-time employed, a mother, a chef, a launderer, etc. A man may be a father, a bread-winner, a coach, a home-improvement expert (hopefully), etc.
As I have been involved with music and the arts in worship for nearly a quarter-century, I have struggled to achieve an inter-relationship between several factors, boiling it down to three things that I hope to successfully integrate in my life, as well as bringing others along with me.
Have you ever seen the guy who spins plates on poles? He gets several going, then one starts wobbling, getting ready to fall, while he busily re-spins the next one. It seems like all he can do is constantly go around from one plate to the next keeping the plates from falling to the ground and breaking.
This is a wonderful illustration of how I have felt in dealing with the many dynamics of the arts in worship successfully. But I have recently come to the realization that what I am after is not about separate plates, but different sides of the same plate, or, staying true to my initial metaphor: the corners of a hat.
These corners are: 1) True Spirituality, 2) True Artistry, and 3) True Relevance.
I heard a clever statement once about finding a good bargain. If you can find something that is: 1) Good, 2) Fast, and 3) Cheap, you’ve got a great deal! But it is really hard to find all three at the same time. You can fairly easily find something that is Good and Fast (but not Cheap), or you can find something that is Good and Cheap (but not Fast), or you can find something that is Cheap and Fast (but it isn’t that Good), etc.
This is a little like the way I have experienced trying to integrate the Three-cornered hat of Spirituality, Artistry and Relevance.
Working in a Church environment as an artist, I have seen over the years an attitude of mediocrity that I have done my best to break, the attitude that “God sees our heart, and that’s all that matters.” As ministry is usually built upon the labors of volunteers, the people may give their best, yet they don’t have the time or resources to sufficiently develop a skill-set that can compete with world-class artistry. Sadly, many churches, aware of this, simply give up trying to excel altogether.
Another mistake church congregations fall into is irrelevance to their culture. This may happen in some places due to an uncaring attitude, but I believe that more often it is a result of routine. Doing everything possible to keep things moving forward week after week, habits form in the way things are done and it becomes increasingly difficult to change the routine, especially if the organization is large or the average age of the participants has grown older.
The church does a wonderful job of putting the pieces back together of broken lives, bandaging up their wounds and providing a community of love and acceptance for those who are committed to drawing upon the resources of that community.
However, the church generally lacks artistic skill and cultural relevance.
Having come from a highly intensive artistic background, as a classical violinist, I have seen people involved in their craft starting from grade-school age or earlier, holed up in a practice room for hours as they grow up, when ‘normal people’ would be out socializing. (I have experienced this in my own life, as well.) These sacrifices are the only way to achieve true artistic greatness. There’s simply no other way. But it also has its drawbacks.
Focusing on a craft for the majority of one’s life can certainly make one excellent in that particular craft, but what happens when society moves on, placing value on some other art-form than the one you are skilled in? I have seen this happen with the transitioning dominance of the Symphony Orchestra in America less than a century ago, now struggling to survive (even in metropolitan areas) today. What will happen to the hours of study, cost of lessons and instruments that are the marks of high sacrifice for a select group of people who have missed their moment of cultural relevance?
Interestingly, people in this ‘culture’ have come to accept that their art will never truly reach the masses and are content to make beautiful music for whoever will listen, yet the audience is continuing to shrink.
I have had many conversations with people in this highly intense artistic environment about Christianity, and while there are some who have become devout believers, the majority of them are so focused on their craft that they seem to have time only for things that relate to that craft. If they are interested at all in any kind of spirituality, it is for one purpose: making themselves better in their art. How many of my conversations with some of these folks have had the question interjected, “Who in the tradition of my art was ever a Christian?” They want to follow an example of someone who was spiritually enriched for the purpose of being successful. In other words, the priority is all about ‘success’, not spirituality.
Many have sensed in their music (what I would refer to as) a ‘God-moment’, when something happens beyond their own talent or skill, a moment of beauty that they can’t explain. They spend much time theorizing how they can put that in a bottle, capturing it for the next performance, but yet it’s elusive. Little do they realize that God will not allow Himself to be controlled by man’s whims, particularly when the motivation is self-serving.
Unfortunately, those who are successful in their art and craft tend to be lacking in both relevance and true spirituality.
My experience in a contemporary-styled church has given me insight into the lives of those who are culturally relevant in their art-forms. In the early years of my involvement in church ministry, a number of people had come into the church’s music team directly out of a life-style of decadence, yet high cultural relevance.
These people, like the Classical artist, were very focused in their activities, yet this focus and high cultural saturation was from the bar-rooms of our city.
They knew how to move a crowd, how to harness electronics, lights, sound and style to impact their audience. They had skills that were inspired by the approval of a ‘blue-collar’ crowd. These skills were so new, however, that they couldn’t be easily taught and were very artistically unrefined.
It took a couple of decades for these cultural expressions to settle down, being ‘captured’ for use in other less eruptive environments (like the Church). [It seems like Universities are on the tail end of this process, making a refined curriculum out of what were originally volatile environments of creativity.]
Unfortunately, many of those I knew who made it out alive from a society of drug-overdose, drunkenness, sexual promiscuity, brawling, and general rebellion to any authority other than their own desires, barely existed in any kind of spirituality in the Church. The deep-rooted habits of anarchy still doggedly held onto their hearts, preventing them from making much progress in quality life-decisions.
Although their growth was slow and painful, I had to remind myself that without the light of Christ in their lives “this one would be dead of a drug-overdose” and “that one would be divorced” and “that one would be bankrupt, living on the street.” I have truly seen God work a miracle in many of these lives who came from an environment of decadence. But it’s a difficult road for everyone involved.
Nevertheless, as an artist, I learned many valuable lessons from these folks regarding cultural relevance. They challenged me to use my skills to start transcribing into musical notation what otherwise could not have been captured and learned. They taught me foundational skills in a variety of popular styles of music. They taught me basic sound system design along with lighting and video systems.
They also inadvertently taught me a lot about leadership, as I had to constantly deal with their many controversial attitudes and anarchy in the context of what was supposed to be a spiritual environment!
Even though I learned much from them, they were quite resistant to my many attempts to bring them into some degree of refinement through the classical disciplines of things like reading music, following a conductor, expanding the pop-culture art to more than a three-minute song, good intonation, learning scales, etc. Even though they respected the fact that I knew these things, they just couldn’t seem to break through the barriers of their own insecurities to push themselves beyond playing a few chords on their guitar.
So those who were highly culturally relevant in their art were ultimately lacking in spirituality and technical artistry.
Now that I have enumerated a good deal about my life-experiences, it's probably easy to see why I yearn for the best of these three areas to exist in one ‘Hat’, a three-cornered hat, not separate components, separate plates to be spun, but one unified existence of True Spirituality, True Artistry, and True Cultural Relevance.
I have seen some truly spiritual people who were fine artists, yet they lacked much cultural relevance. I have seen people who were culturally relevant in their art and had a good deal of technical artistry and skill, yet they had no desire for any spirituality. I have seen those who have managed to be culturally relevant in their art, as well as being sincerely spiritual, yet they lack high artistic achievement.
I have seen all of these things, but rarely have I seen a situation in which all three coexist. Even in my own life, I have endeavored to live these dynamics only to find myself balanced away from one or the other.
Sometimes it seems to me that this place must exists somewhere outside of time and space!
So here is the “Three-cornered Hat” that I am endeavoring to wear, with the priority of True Spirituality, then True Artistry and True Relevance. If I had to let one of the ‘plates’ fall and crash, I would choose Relevance, because I would rather know that my art had personal integrity even if no one else understood or cared. And if I could only have one of these three things, I would choose Spirituality, because ultimately my relationship with a loving Creator will satisfy my soul more than the inconsistencies I find in the greatest art I could ever produce.
I long for the day that the Church, in its heart of love, will strive to be artistically excellent and relevant. I am convinced that the consummate artist will only be completely satisfied when his or her art is united with a heart of worship, desiring to touch as many people as possible, for the right reasons. I know that there is so much more that can be artistically done with today’s popular styles, raising them to higher levels of discipline and design, while pointing them towards God as the purpose for their existence.
A true “Three-cornered Hat”. I hope you can wear it with me.