Show the Ice Who’s Boss

Posted in Art, Quotes by cleithart on April 19, 2016

I’m slowly working my way through Douglas Hofstadter’s heavy tome, Le Ton beau de Marot, and enjoying every page. Here’s Hof discussing poets who flourish under very specific limitations, such as a strict rhyme scheme or only using one vowel.

If you do a good job in selecting what you need in order to accommodate your self-imposed constraints, you will appear to be in control of your medium, rather than the reverse.

This is a bit like a great ice-skater, who has become so at one with the constraints under which she is operating that her maneuvers seem for all the world to show the ice who’s boss, rather than the reverse. The truth of the matter is, however, that over many years, it was the ice who showed her who was boss, until finally it had trained her so well that she now knows what to avoid and what to do in order to give an untrained audience the impression that she’s on top. It takes a long apprenticeship to a set of constraints for this apparent reversal – this beautiful sleight of foot – to take effect.

I love that phrase, “it had trained her so well…” Sometimes we think of artists as those who have gained mastery over a particular medium, whether it be words, wood, or video cameras. Maybe this is a better way to think about it: artists are those who have voluntarily surrendered to their medium. In other words, art is a process of being trained by the world, instead of the other way around.


The Laws of Metre

Posted in Poetry, Quotes by cleithart on April 5, 2016

Charles Babbage, an English mathematician and inventor, wrote a letter to Alfred, Lord Tennyson, commenting on the latter’s poem, The Vision of Sin.

“Every minute dies a man, / Every minute one is born:” I need hardly point out to you that this calculation would tend to keep the sum total of the world’s population in a state of perpetual equipoise, whereas it is a well-known fact that the said sum total is constantly on the increase. I would therefore take the liberty of suggesting that in the next edition of your excellent poem the erroneous calculation to which I refer should be corrected as follows: “Every moment dies a man / And one and a sixteenth is born.” I may add that the exact figures are 1.167, but something must, of course, be conceded to the laws of metre.

Tennyson actually revised the poem, which now reads like this: “Every moment dies a man, / Every moment one is born.”

Once again, art takes a knee before the rule of fact-checkers and copyeditors.

From Doug Hofstadter’s book Le Ton beau de Marot.

(Letters of Note has a slightly different version of the letter here.)

Four non-Biblical Reasons to Sing the Psalms

Posted in Bible, Music by cleithart on March 31, 2016

Many (not all) Christians agree that the Psalms should be an important part of our lives. At the very least, the Psalms were important to Jesus, so they should be important to us, too.

But do we have to sing them? Can’t we read them during the service or pray them to ourselves?

I think there are solid Biblical reasons to sing the Psalms, but let me start with four not-necessarily-Biblical ones.

1. Singing takes time.

You can skim through your Bible reading, but you can’t skim while you’re singing. It forces you to pay attention through every verse of Psalm 68 (the agony!).

2. Singing is public.

You can read silently. You can recite the Psalms to yourself in your mind. But if you’re singing, there’s gonna be some noise. Someone standing near you might hear. That’s a good reason to sing the Psalms.

3. You can sing when you don’t feel like praying.

When words are put to music, it becomes easier to get them out. You may have trouble speaking or remembering the words to a prayer – or even knowing what to say. Singing a Psalm can be your prayer.

4. Singing is corporate.

Of course, you can sing all by yourself. And you can recite as a group. But, generally, music is the best way for a group of people to say something at once. Plus, one person’s singing can support another’s in a way that simple recitation can’t, so the Psalms become the voice of the body in a real way.

Reading at Whim

Posted in Books, Reviews by cleithart on March 9, 2016

Last week, I finished reading Alan Jacobs’ fine book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. I wish I had taken more or better notes (since it was a library book, I couldn’t make scratches in the margins). On the other hand, maybe it’s an indication of how much I enjoyed the book that I didn’t stop and jot down my thoughts every few pages.

Jacobs’ main point in the book is his emphasis on reading at whim. Not just whim, though. Reading at Whim, capital W. Simply put, reading at Whim means that you choose what you will read based on whether or not it gives you pleasure, rather than based on a sense of duty. Jacobs says that, while reading for other reasons (information, understanding) is important, reading for pleasure is healthy for reasons that most of us hardly ever think about. When we read for pleasure, we enjoy art for its own sake, not for the sake of critiquing it or explaining it. And art enjoyed for the sake of enjoyment is art at its most potent.

Even if your idea of reading for enjoyment is classic literature, ration yourself. Jacobs elaborates:

Read what gives you delight – at least most of the time – and do so without shame. And even if you are that rare sort of person who is delighted chiefly by what some people call Great Books, don’t make them your steady intellectual diet, any more than you would eat the most elegant of restaurants every day. It would be too much. Great books are great in part because of what they ask of their readers: they are not readily encountered, easily assessed. The poet W. H. Auden once wrote, ‘When one thinks of the attention that a great poem demands, there is something frivolous about the notion of spending every day with one. Masterpieces should be kept for High Holidays of the Spirit’ – for our own personal Christmases and Easters, not for any old Wednesday.

The capital W in Whim is Jacobs’ way of saying that whim can be cultivated and learned. Not all great books are great for all people at all times. There’s a definite temporal appropriateness to a great book. Jacobs mentions how he grew so frustrated with G. K. Chesterton that he literally threw one of his books across the back yard. But enough of Jacobs’ literary heroes revered Chesterton that he returned to the author again and again. Finally, one day, when the time was right, something Chesterton wrote clicked and Jacobs began to enjoy what he had to say. Reading at Whim requires humility, and sometimes, hard work.

If there’s one specific thing I’ll take away from the book (and I hope that I take away more than just one), it’s Jacobs’ emphasis on re-reading. Why, he asks, do we find picking up a new book more desirable than re-reading a familiar one? Part of the answer has to do with time — our days and minutes are limited and we want to make use of them. With this mindset, re-reading obviously feels like a waste of resources. Another part of the answer may have to do with the pull of the unknown. We’re like to explore because, you never know, we may find something better. But what makes that a convincing argument? Few really excellent books reveal everything about themselves the first time you read them. This part of The Pleasures of Reading made me take another look at my bookshelf to see if there were classics there that I really should revisit.

Inspiration Turnover

Posted in Movies by cleithart on March 2, 2016

I was talking to a four-year-old boy today and he told me how excited he was when he got to wear his Captain America costume. He put it on, helmet and all, and paraded around the room, and I wondered whether it would make any difference in how much he loved Cap if I tried to convince him of the narrative, aesthetic, and ideological shortcomings of the Marvel movies. Probably not.

A lot of the people who make movies nowadays grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, watching movies like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Raiders especially comes up time and time again in interviews with screenwriters and directors (American ones, anyway) as the one film that cemented their enduring love of movies. A lot of them make movies in an attempt to get back to those magic moments in their childhood, like when Luke learns how to use the force or Indy swings across a pit and grabs his hat just before the huge stone door slams shut.

Now, Raiders of the Lost Ark is incredibly well made. It’s fun, popcorn entertainment, but it’s also practically a handbook for how to shoot a movie, especially one with a lot of action. With Raiders as the standard, a lot of people bemoan the present state of blockbuster movies. In terms of elegant filmmaking, The Avengers doesn’t really measure up to Raiders or even Star Wars, but that didn’t stop The Avengers from winning critical praise and breaking box office records, not to mention giving four-year-olds cool action heroes to dress up as. By those accounts, it’s a good movie.

Kids who grew up on Lucas and Spielberg were inspired to make their own movies. What about today’s kids, growing up on a steady diet of Marvel movies? Will they look to Avengers: Age of Ultron for craft and inspiration? Maybe. Probably. Would they be wrong? For all I know, to those kids, Raiders might seem slow, cliched, and overdramatic. Their inspiration may have to come from the movies they grew up on. They may actually see things in those movies that those of us with an older taste don’t.

All that to say, I think we should be careful when it comes to judging art of our own time. Criticism is ok, but let’s talk more about the craft itself and whether it worked for a particular story. Being married to one particular style of filmmaking and judging everything else by that standard can be risky.

A few random thoughts: I might be wrong, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Guardians of the Galaxy turned out to be more of a cult classic than most of the films in the Marvel canon. There’s an exuberance and creativity there that a lot of them don’t have. Also, Chistopher Nolan is one filmmaker currently making blockbusters that are unique and compelling in their craft. He’s already inspired filmmakers around the world, and he probably will continue to do so for many years. Last thing: Isn’t it great when you see a movie that’s fun, exciting, and technically great, and you can recommend it as a family/group movie without a lot of hemming and hawwing? I wish there were more movies like that. Somebody should inspire some kid to make one of those.

Movies Market Themselves

Posted in Movies by cleithart on February 24, 2016

I once read somewhere that you should think of producing a movie as starting a business from scratch. (Jens Jacobs says a similar thing in this interview, but that’s not where I first heard it. You should still read his interview, though.)

Think about it: making a movie can involve thousands of people, all of whom need to be managed and (hopefully) paid. The production may need to rent buildings, coordinate with property owners and city officials, and figure out a way to get from here to there. And everything has to be done according to a very, very strict schedule.

(If you’re curious what all this looks like in terms of numbers, take a look at the fascinating and probably illegally copied budget sheet from The Village.)

In fact, most big studio movies are literally set up as a separation corporation that then takes a loan out from the studio. That way, the studio can protect itself from losses – and make out big if a movie turns out to be a hit. If you want to read more about that, you can check out this article or the book The Hollywood Economist, by Edward Jay Epstein.

What’s the role of the movie in all of this? Obviously, the movie is the product being sold by the studio. But the movie also plays an important secondary role in its own business. The movie itself is used for marketing. Not merely in the sense of footage being used for trailers and things like that. The characters, the story, and the set pieces are all considered in terms of how much they cost weighed against how much of a draw they will be for the potential moviegoer. If you watch Furious 7 and see the most mind-blowing car-driving-out-of-an-airplane scene you’ve ever witnessed (that was in number 7, right?), and you tell all of your friends that they have to see it at all costs and rave about it on Facebook, then, in studio terms, the cost of the stunt was fully justified. The movie markets itself.

I’m not saying that the people who make movies don’t care about what they do beyond selling a product and lining their pockets. But still, it’s good for the average moviegoer to understand what they’re being sold. It’s a product. This is true whether we’re talking about the latest episode of the Marvel silver screen serial or a medium budget Christian family film with its requisite conversion scene. The fantasies played out on screen aren’t always there because they’re what the story needs. Sometimes they’re there because that’s what it takes to get you to buy a ticket.


Posted in Books, Quotes by cleithart on February 12, 2016

You see, they imagine that I have everything I want – cars and pools and appliances and Picassos – only because I have what they want. But what I want I cannot have. I cannot have so much time ahead of me that it is seemingly without limit. I cannot any longer be quite so deeply in love with the world now that I know that my love for it is unrequited. I cannot ride in my father’s arms. I cannot know any of the great store of his memories that he did not tell me. And I cannot change the fact, as I am the last one who remembers him, that all he saw, and learned, and loved, will have a second death when they die with me.

From Mark Helprin’s short story “Reconstruction” in his collection The Pacific.

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Why Protestants Can’t Art: Three Guesses

Posted in Art by cleithart on February 10, 2016

A friend recently posted on Facebook that, in his experience, Evangelical Christians aren’t making good art. We tend to discuss art a lot, but in general, we don’t encourage the kind of atmosphere that great art thrives in. I don’t have an explanation for this, but here are three guesses as to why this trend is so persistent.

Walking on Water - Azurite by Makoto Fujimura

First of all, when art is encouraged in Christian communities, it’s often encouraged in the service of a larger goal, usually one with a theological argument behind it. Christian artists love to explain what they’re doing. The meaning of the art is displayed on its surface. “That’s Noah, and this rock over here represents sin being swallowed up by the waters of baptism.” Most of the time, this comes from a genuine love for the truths being communicated. But a certain level of ambiguity is often what makes art great, because what the art is saying can’t quite be put into words. Protestant Evangelical Christians don’t really like ambiguity. We usually want art to have one straightforward meaning, and frankly, most great art doesn’t.

That brings us to the second point. Art requires an element of uncertainty in the artist. David Bentley Hart mentions that beauty seems to give reconciliation to things that cannot be reconciled. It’s almost as if beauty operates on a different timeline from ours. In order for the artist to let beauty do that work, the artist must admit that things are not reconciled. Ecclesiastes says that God put eternity in the hearts of men. The Evangelical Protestant wants that eternity to be filled up with the truth of the Gospel. (Whether or not this is historically true, it’s how many present-day Christians operate.) Again, this may be done with utmost sincerity, but it smothers the artistic pursuit. Beauty wants those unanswered questions.

Lastly, as the poet Scott Cairns says, artists tend to fall in love with the stuff of making. Those who paint canvases dream of paint. The poet pushes words around in her head all day. The serious photographer or cinematographer is always paying attention to the way light bounces off of things. At one level, the artist must be willing to lay aside what he knows in his mind to be true in order to pay attention to what the stuff tells him to do. In the contemporary evangelical church, the stuff of the world is typically regarded with suspicion. (This seems to be changing, based on my own experience, and praise the Lord for that.) Trying to create art with that kind of attitude is sort of like, say, making bricks without straw. Unless Christians are willing to fall in love with the world, they can kiss their artistic aspirations goodbye.

(I’d encourage you to read this post at CiRCE about why modern people can’t write and this post at First Things, which kicked off this whole discussion in the first place.)

That painting is Walking on Water – Azurite, by the Christian abstract artist Makoto Fujimura.

What I Did in 2015

Posted in Updates, Video, Writing by cleithart on February 3, 2016

I decided to make a catalogue of some of the things I wrote, edited, or contributed to over the past 12 months.


I wrote two articles for the Theopolis Institute, one about sexuality and one about civil obedience. I also have another post up, new this week, about the particular sins that artists are prone to.

I reviewed two movies at Film Fisher, Blackhat and Avengers: Age of Ultron.

I wrote a chapter for a book about Christianity and Doctor Who, and had my first ever book signing.

I wrote an article for the New Jersey Family Magazine called “The Limits of Sexual Freedom,” which you can read here.


I wrote a short film called This Is Me for the Colchester Film Festival 60-Hour Film Challenge. My brother filmed and edited it in two days. It must’ve turned out well because it was chosen to screen at the festival as part of their official shortlist.

I co-wrote and produced a short film called The Man With Two Legs with my friend, David K. The film is based on a novel by G.K. Chesterton called Manalive. Check out some photos from the production here.

I helped out with a film called Roomies, written and directed by my friend, Daniel S. Watch it here.

The feature film that I helped shoot in the summer of 2014 had its world premiere in Lancaster, PA.

I edited a short video for some friends of mine who have a ministry in Lancaster.

In college, the men’s Bible study that I was part of would sometimes take trips up into the woods to chop down some trees and split some firewood. I took my camera along one Saturday (it must’ve been late 2012). Last week, I finally got around to editing the footage; you can watch the result here.

And I got to help out with this cool video for Khan Academy. (Ok, that released in 2016, but I did most of the drawings in 2015.)

That’s enough for now. 2015 was a busy year.

The Artist’s Litany

Posted in Art, Writing by cleithart on February 3, 2016

“If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth… If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:6-9)

If there’s one thing every artist aspires to, it’s telling the truth. Nicki Minaj and Gregory Alan Isakov both present something at the core of their music that they (or their managers) believe is true. Otherwise, they would not connect with their audiences.

Throughout history, sculptors, painters, poets, authors, musicians, photographers, and filmmakers have created art that resonates with deep truth, and many of them have done so without confessing their sins or making any effort to walk in the light. It’s tempting, therefore, for Christians to think that the pursuit of art is somehow distinct from the pursuit of holiness. But if Christ has any claim on your life at all, he has claim on all of it. The pursuit of artistic excellence is never an excuse to leave sins unconfessed, as difficult as that may be.

In light of that, then, here is the Artist’s Litany.

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