Concering the Sabbath (Part 3/4): “Works righteousness” versus a badge of identity

I want to take a moment and perhaps cut the Pharisees a little slack. When we, as Protestants read the Bible, we often project our own issues back on to what we are reading. The reformers were zealous in preaching salvation by faith alone, as opposed to “works righteousness”. That is good. But when we see everything through that lens, we can misinterpret what other people are trying to say. We often want to imagine that the Pharisees were legalists trying to “work their way to heaven” instead of just trusting Yahweh. We imagine that if they are advocating adherence to a law, it MUST be because they deny justification by faith. But that is projecting a reformation-era controversy back on the first century. Relaying on the law to save them may have been a serious problem, but some wise historians have suggested that this may not have been forefront in the Pharisees mind.

Remember that Israel was a conquered land, ruled by the Romans. They’re devotion to God was suppressed. They were surrounded by idol-worshipping pagans sacrificing to Zeus and you-name-it every day of the week! Keeping the Sabbath and eating Kosher food was very important to them as a badge of national identity. It was one of the few ways they could say, “Hey! We’re different! We are our own people! We are NOT like you pagans.” These traditions kept them glued together as a people in an environment where many other cultures disappeared or were simply absorbed into the empire. Keeping the Sabbath, for them, was more than obeying a law that God gave them a long time ago; it was a huge part of asserting themselves as Jews. It gave their life meaning.

Are we like them? Do we have a badge of Christian identity that makes us stand out in our very secular culture? Wearing a beard or a head covering? You still find that in some places. No drinking beer and no 2-piece bathing suits? Maybe if you grew up Baptist, like I did. Those may have meant something in America 50 years ago, but they are probably failed or false distinctions today. Displaying an American flag? That doesn’t actually have anything to do with God. How does anyone know we are Christians? No divorce? No ridiculous consumer debt? How on earth do we stick together and distinguish ourselves from the surrounding culture? I don’t really have an answer. The Jews and the Pharisees, subdued by a foreign power, were grasping for a way to do that. Observing the Sabbath strictly became that mark. Perhaps showing up to sing and eat bread and wine on Sunday is still our best bet.

Actually, later in his gospel account, the one we are studying this year, John tells us what Jesus said our badge would be:

By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
(John 13:35 ESV)

They will know we are Christians, not by our clothes or food or drink or rituals, or wealth or poverty, or politics (though those things are necessary and DO matter), but our defining, obvious characteristic is to be our love for on another.


Note: For an insightful look at the Jewish attitude toward the Sabbath during Jesus’ time, see N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, especially pages 387-396.

Concerning the Sabbath (Part 2/4): History

History and timeline


Though the details about the Sabbath aren’t outlined until the Law of Moses in the book of Exodus, we see it show up very early on in scripture, in Genesis chapter 2.

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.
(Genesis 2:1-3 ESV)

So after God created the heavens, earth, and everything in it, he rested. Whether this was a 24-hour day or some other period of time doesn’t matter. This period of rest is something instituted from the dawn of the earth. This is the origin of the week. Notice that in this verse there is nothing prescriptive. There isn’t a command to Adam build a calendar and watch it carefully. We are just told that God rested and that he made the day “holy” or sanctified – set aside as special. We aren’t told that God rested every 7th day from then on or anything of the sort. Just that for that one day, he rested. He stopped creating things. God didn’t rest because his muscles were tired. He doesn’t have muscles (though Jesus did.) Adam needed sleep. God doesn’t. His imagination and power are limitless.


Later in Genesis, we have Abraham. Nowhere do we have any explicit evidence that he observed any sort of Sabbath rest. He might have and some people conjecture that he did, but it apparently wasn’t important enough to mention. The same goes for Abraham’s descendants Isaac, Jacob, and the other early patriarchs.

Early Israel: Egypt

When the nation of Israel is in slavery in Egypt, Moses asked Pharaoh to give them a few days off to go and worship God in the desert.

But Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.” Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Please let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God, lest he fall upon us with pestilence or with the sword.” But the king of Egypt said to them, “Moses and Aaron, why do you take the people away from their work? Get back to your burdens.”
(Exodus 5:2-4 ESV)

Pharaoh’s reply is interesting. From his perspective, taking days off was bad for the economy. Judging by his reply to Moses here, he would not have been thrilled about a moratorium on brick-laying every seven days. “Something like that would kill GDP! Come on Moses, money never sleeps!”

Law of Moses

After Israel escapes from Egypt, the Lord gives Moses the law on Mt. Sinai. The Ten Commandments are a summary of this law. We already saw that #4 requires that we keep the Sabbath day holy.

The actual verse is this:

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
(Exodus 20:8-11 ESV)

Later Israel is given a lot more details about what this entails:

Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.”
(Exodus 35:2-3 ESV)

But wait, there is more! It turns out Sabbath isn’t just a day of the week. I can be a year!

“Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the LORD. For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits, but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the LORD. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.
(Leviticus 25:2-4 ESV)

This is a very good law. Wise farmers know that they need to put their fields in fallow every few years so that nature can restore the nutrients to the soil. Trying to squeeze every last drop of productivity out of the environment has damaging consequences. The same goes for employers trying to squeeze ever last drop of productivity out of their workers by demanding that they work Saturday, Sunday, overtime, etc. This sort of abuse always backfires. Here we have explicit commands from God against it. The Law of Moses enforced economic moderation. Very prudent, and over 3500 years old too.

But wait, there’s even more! Every 50 years (seven times seven plus one) there was a “super Sabbath” called the year of Jubilee. During this year, slaves were automatically freed, debts were forgiven, land was returned to the original owners, and others sorts of redemption occurred. I could read you the verses here from the Old Testament, but the passages are pretty long and detailed. The point is that the observance of “Sabbath” was a big idea that extended to many things besides taking a day off your day job.

I know people in this room who were personally devastated when the home mortgage bubble burst a few years ago. I have some older coworkers at my office who were supposed to be retired by now, but they lost most of their savings when the banks and stock markets tanked in 2008. Can you imagine what the mortgage industry would look like if everyone’s debts were forgiven every 50 years? Economists today say that things like the year of Jubilee are silly and obviously can’t apply to our modern society. All of God’s old commands to Israel had a purpose though. Perhaps he knows something we don’t?

So for centuries, the Jews observed the Sabbath (or at least the more devout ones tried to). Things changed though after they were carried into exile in Babylon and returned a couple generations later.

2nd Temple Judaism, the time of Jesus

This brings us to the time in history known as “Second Temple Judaism”, the time into which Jesus Christ was born. The Jews were back in Israel, the temple had been rebuilt but they were no longer in control of the government. They were a conquered people, a small province of the empire of Rome. Because of this, there were huge parts of the law that they were no longer able to enforce. Much of their daily laws were subject to the secular powers. Think about the laws against worshipping false God’s and the punishments? The moral restrictions on sleeping around or the requirements to be an honest businessman? The local pagan governor Herod or the Roman prefect Pilate didn’t care about those. They only let the Jewish leaders enforce some of the Old Testament law as a way of keeping the natives settled down.

Because the people of God were constrained, the Pharisees, teachers and experts in God’s law, took certain parts of law and blew them up like a balloon – adding hundreds of pages of “official” commentary on how to observe the rules just right. A modern translation of these laws for Orthodox Jews who want to continue in the Pharisees’ tradition includes thousands of these guidelines.

Jesus was not impressed. He was frequently critical of their actions as the self-ordained ritual police. At the same time, many of the Pharisees were very interested in Jesus and would follow him around. He sure did seem like a prophet from God sometimes, they just weren’t quite sure what to do with him.

This pronouncement from Jesus in Mark 2:27 is revealing and key to our discussion:

And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
(Mark 2:27 ESV)

Back to why God established the Sabbath rest. Is it because he gets tired? Of course not. But we do. We need rest to be healthy. He knows this. He’s the one who designed our minds and bodies. In a way, to NOT observe Sabbath (in some sense) is ultimately to abuse yourself. It’s for us. God doesn’t need our worship on that day either to enlarge his Godness.

As far as following Jesus goes, note what is missing from this summary of the law that the apostle Paul gives in Romans 13.

For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
(Romans 13:9-10 ESV)

But I guess those are laws dealing with loving your neighbor. How about something more direct?

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.
(Colossians 2:16-17 ESV)

So why is the old Sabbath notion being tossed? The answer I think lies in Jesus himself. More on that later.

Let’s move on to how the early church, the first Christians handled this. For the first few years, the church was made up almost entirely of Jewish people! Acts talks about them meeting in the synagogues together even after they became Christ’s disciples. I don’t think there is any reason to assume that they wouldn’t have continued to be very Jewish, at least culturally. We know they still had their baby boys circumcised, and only ate kosher food. It’s unlikely that their Sabbath observance changed much, especially if they lived in or around Israel.

A few years later though, gentiles (that’s the rest of us) started to be saved through the work of Paul and other missionaries. Some of the Jewish Christians were insisting that the new converts from Greece and Rome should also be circumcised and probably should lay off the bacon too. As is recorded in the New Testament, Paul was really serious about squashing these ideas from the so-called “Judaizes”. The old ceremonial laws are NOT important he insists. Jesus has fulfilled them. And Paul was trained as a Pharisee. He knew what he was talking about.

What we do find is that Sunday began to take on a new significance. Since that was the day that Jesus rose from the dead, a lot of early church leaders apparently thought it was the new best day to get together for corporate worship.

Ignatius of Antioch, an early church leader wrote this in about 100 AD. That’s only one generation removed from the apostles:

“Those who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord’s Day, on which our life has sprung up again by Him and by His death”
(Letter to the Magnesians 9.1).

Justin Martyr, another early church father, elaborates on this in 150 AD.

“Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples”

And this is why MOST Christians (including us here) have been meeting together on Sundays for the past two thousand years.

Later, for better or worse, the church became more institutionalized. In the year 321 Emperor Constantine officially gave Sunday a bit of Sabbath flavor:

“On the venerable day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed.”
(From the “Sunday” edict of 321)

So now, in the Roman Catholic Church, which for the next 1200 years or so is ALL Christians, at least in the west, Sunday became not just a day of gathering for worship, but was also a government enforced day of rest – a “Sabbat” of a sort.

The bulk of the secular world today still observes this tradition, to some degree. All government offices and banks are closed on Sunday across the whole earth! In America though, most retail stores are open. Modernism has eroded this healthy Sabbath-esque institution of rest.

There has been some confusion as to whether Christians “moved” the Sabbath to Sunday. No, rather they (at least the non Jewish ones) ignored the Sabbath (following Jesus’ example and Paul’s teaching), but then Sunday took on some of the same characteristics. Over the centuries though, “The Lord’s Day” the term for Sunday, and “Sabbath” became largely interchangeable.

During the protestant reformation, many of the leaders, including Martin Luther and John Calvin were very insistent that our faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ was the only really important element in Christianity. In the view of many of the reformers and descendants, we are in no way bound by the Law of Moses anymore. Having Sunday off is a convenient time to rest and also gather to worship. It’s good and practical.

So this history of “what do people who follow the Triune God do on the weekend” is our history here. You are participating in the continuation of it right now.

There have been a few dissenting voices over the years. I’ll mention a few of them now.

The early Puritans that came to colonize America – some of them are your ancestors – were very zealous about not working on The Lord’s Day. They made many local and regional laws restricting what sort of work could be done on Sundays. Some of this tradition can still be observed if you travel to certain parts back east. Some towns still virtually shut down on Sunday. This is from that early Puritan heritage.

Growing up, I attended a 7th-day Adventist elementary school so I had a lot of friends that went to church on Saturday. As their name suggests, this is a Christian denomination that has decided that worshipping together on Saturday (not Sunday) is really important. This has turned out to be pretty handy, as they will usually let another church in town borrow their building the following day.

Ellen G. White, one of the founders of the seventh-day Adventists had this to say:

The Sabbath will be the great test of loyalty. The observance of the false Sabbath in compliance with the law of the state, contrary to the fourth commandment, will be an avowal of allegiance to a power that is in opposition to God, the keeping of the true Sabbath, in obedience to God’s law, is an evidence of loyalty to the Creator. While one class, by accepting the sign of submission to earthly powers, receive the mark of the beast, the other choosing the token of allegiance to divine authority, receive the seal of God. (Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, 1884).

You catch that? The “Mark of the beast” mentioned in Revelation is going to church on Sunday. So that’s all of us here I guess. Well, that was almost a hundred and fifty years ago and they’ve toned down their rhetoric a lot since, so I don’t want to give them a hard time.

Concerning the Sabbath (Part 1/4): Introduction

At an independent Bible church, lay preaching is about par for the course. We are spending the year going through the gospel of John in pretty small increments and today it was my turn. I’ve edited the text of it here slightly into four posts with maybe some supplemental material following. I enjoyed preparing this one and ended up learning quite a bit. I was excited to discover that even a topic so “law heavy” in most discourses can be shown to point so brightly to grace.

The Text

Passage – John 5:1-18

After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.

Now that day was the Sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.” But he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”

This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.


Lord, open our ears and enlighten our minds to understand this event in Jesus’ life. Soften our hearts and teach us to love your law and appreciate your grace even more as we study this word you have given us. Amen.

What are we going to talk about and why?

There are several things in this passage that we could talk about. The pool of Bethesda is kind of interesting since it has a back-story involving angels. Instead though, we’re going to look at the main reason John included this in his book, which was to highlight that Jesus was healing on the Sabbath.

Jesus, by simply opening his mouth and speaking the command, makes this crippled man’s body whole again. He doesn’t have to perform surgery or cast out any demons, put mud on his eyes, or even pray to the father.

Jesus often went out of his way not to draw attention to himself. In this story, he appears to have left soon after, before the man could figure out who he was. Later the Pharisees asked, “Wow, you can walk now? What happened to you?” But when he tells them what happened, they immediately become upset that the healing occurred on the Sabbath. Later, they confront Jesus about it and he brushes them off saying, “My Father is always working, and so am I.”

We are told that this is why they were seeking to kill him. Later, when Jesus is on trial, they try to portray him as some kind of anti-Roman revolutionary. They had to do this because the Romans didn’t care a bit about their religious ideas. The real reason for their hate (a seed that, when planted and watered grows into murder) was that Jesus was saying he was equal with the Father because he could ignore the Sabbath laws, with God’s blessing no less.

So today, I’m going to talk about the Sabbath, clear up what it is and what it isn’t; look through scripture and see what it’s origins are; provide a brief history or timeline about what Christians have done about it over the years, up to what we here (all you sitting in this room!) at Bridge Bible do about it today; and why. We’ll also take another look back at the Pharisees and Jesus and try to understand why it was such a big deal to them. It might provide some clues to how we should live today in an increasingly hostile public square.

Why talk about the Sabbath? Well, it happens every seven days! That’s a pretty common occurrence. What are you going to do about it? What to do about the Sabbath has regularly been a controversial topic in Christianity. After Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, observing it seems to be a pretty obvious “outward sign” of our religious devotion. Serving God isn’t something that just happens inside your head. (That’s called Gnosticism.) It includes what you do with your body in space and time.

Jesus was baptized and Jesus ate the bread and wine, but he didn’t observe the Sabbath, at least, not in a way anyone would recognize. In fact, Jesus made some incredible claims about being Lord of the Sabbath. Does this mean he just tossed it out the window? This is what I’ll be talking about today.

Definition, What is and isn’t the Sabbath?

If you haven’t studied the bible a lot (and that’s OK! Some of you here may be new to faith in Jesus Christ. Some of us have been reading it and hearing about it since we were children, but that can also backfire and make it harder to pay attention to parts of it anymore.) Anyway, if you haven’t studied the bible, especially the Old Testament much, I can’t blame you if you think that the “Sabbath” is simply the day you go to church. God wants us to worship him right? And he wants us to get together as a group to worship him on a pretty regular basis (say, once a week) and the day everyone picks to do that is the Sabbath. So “keeping the Sabbath” pretty much just means going to church every Sunday. If you decide to sleep in or just watch TV, or whatever, then you’re a Sabbath breaker! Get your rear out of bed and get to church! It’s in the 10 commandments!

The Sabbath is actually something entirely different and in fact, doesn’t really have anything to do with when we get together as a group to worship God. Now, it later took on some of those characteristics, but to nearly everyone we read about in the Bible, including to all of the disciples that followed Jesus around, it meant something pretty different. To the Pharisees it meant even more and to Jesus it meant – nothing? We’ll see.

The word “Sabbath” is from the Hebrew word “Sabbat”, which means, “to rest”. This is why, when someone takes a “sabbatical”, they are taking some time off to rest. In some languages, it has become the word for the number seven.

What it is

Does this not further confirm Mark Knoffler’s place as one of the greatest musicians, songwriters, and guitarists of our time? (Not to mention most underrated).

On not putting the brakes on fame

So Seattle Pastor Mark Driscoll is all over the news this week. People are trashing him for all sorts of things, in particular his new book on marriage.

I could add some positive and negative things to the discussion, but who cares? In general, a lot of what Driscoll has taught over the years has been really good. Some of it’s been pretty silly but it’s not worth the effort for another person to denominate those things.

I will only say this: Mark has done little to put the brakes on his ridiculous rise to celebrity-hood. When the hype-machine came knocking, the door was open – again and again. I’m afraid the scale has finally tipped to the point that his persona is now eclipsing his message. There is only so loud you can say Jesus’ name on a website with your own name in the address bar.

On being “partisan” and “sectarian”

This morning, in my email, I received a reminder with a list of things for faculty and staff to consider as the new semester begins. Right next to each other were these two bullets:

Instructors should proctor examinations diligently and should investigate all cases of suspected or alleged dishonesty, including plagiarism, in their classes.

These words are pretty straightforward. No stealing. No cheating. No lying. Do your own work.

Do not leave bicycles in entryways or hallways, and keep dogs out of university buildings.

Loose bikes and dogs can be obnoxious and distracting at best and dangerous to some at worst. Keep them outside. OK.

Under University’s charter, “no instruction either sectarian in religion or partisan in politics shall ever be allowed in any department of the university.”

Ah, interesting. So you can talk about religion, as long as it’s not “sectarian”. And you can talk about politics, as long as it’s not “partisan”. To do so is forbidden – no exceptions for your department.

What would a lecture on politics look like if it were not partisan? You could, perhaps, read the constitution out loud, and then a recent bill from congress and compare the language. Not a bad exercise actually. You could discuss the mechanics of the branches of government, though that would be utterly boring.

You could weight the pros and cons of the conservatives position. No wait! That could turn partisan very quickly – probably within the tone of voice of the first sentence. You could do the same with the liberal position, but how far can you go without making some (at least implicit) value judgements about the things you are discussing? Surely, there is more than one student in your class who may hold different views entirely. Do you try to represent them too? Ignore them in favor of a progressive vs. conservative dichotomy?

These sorts of discussions always flare up when religion is discussed in the modern public square. A frequent solution is to try and represent everyone and their dog equally. This leads to a wild display in the city park where you have a Nativity display next to a menorah next to a Christmas tree next to Atheist billboard next to a Wells Fargo billboard featuring Santa Clause. The next day, the city is sued for lack of a proper Hindu display. How could they be left out? Or what about reading a prayer over the loudspeaker at school? For some reason, certain fundamentalists are always campaigning to do this. Government administrators are quick to reply that, to be properly inclusive – they would have to read about 20 different prayers. Then, just maybe, it wouldn’t be “sectarian”.

The oft passed over detail is that not having ANY prayer is also making a very sectarian statement. A public square sanitized of religion is not something that occurs freely and naturally. It requires strong chemicals and harsh disinfectants, applied frequently with vigorous scrubbing.

The same is true for politics. Have the government hire teachers to talk about the government in public schools and universities. By nature, can they bite the hand that feeds them? They may think they flaunt their ability to do so, but only so much. They are already in chains held by partisans.

As Chesterton said in The Everlasting Man, regarding Christianity:

It is a stark hypocrisy to pretend that nine-tenths of the higher critics and scientific evolutionists and professors of comparative religion are in the least impartial. Why should they be impartial, what is being impartial, when the whole world is at war about whether one thing is a devouring superstition or a divine hope?

The same can be said about a thousand other topics, though not in as strong of language.

But I am not advocating war. What then is the alternative to impossibly inclusive mushy PC nonsense? Love. Fierce allegiance to truth as best as you can grasp it. Fierce selfless maximum appraisal of your neighbor (and even enemy), valuing his life and value as you do your own. This can’t be done by us – broken and petty people. But we have a forgiving model that has already done it for us. He asks us to do likewise.

At the tomb of Rastafari

This morning, NPR was blaring nothing but politics. I went channel surfing and landed on some authentic Rastafarian Reggae. They were singing about how Haile Selassie would lead us to the new Zion.

Well, just a few months ago I stood at the tomb of Rastafari at Trinity Cathederal in Addis Ababa. I can tell you that he is very much dead there in the ground. He isn’t leading anyone anywhere. Jesus the Christ, on the other hand, has an empty tomb. His life is in the present tense – as it was during man’s inception.

It turns out that Haile Selassie’s greatest legacy came via the resources he directed toward having the Bible translated and distributed to his people. Long after his tomb is full, they continue to read about the tomb that isn’t.

Misc. notes on Art and Fear

An excerpt:

Decisive works of art participate directly in the fabric of history surrounding their maker. Simply put, you have to be there. The surprising (and probably disturbing corollary) to this is that we don’t learn much about making art from being moved by it. Making art is bound by where we are, and the experience of art we have as viewers is NOT a reliable guide to where we are. As viewers we readily experience the power of ground on which we cannot stand – yet that very experience can be so compelling that we may feel almost honor-bound to make art that recaptures that power. Or more dangerously, feel tempted to use the same techniques, the same subjects, the same symbols as appear in the work that aroused our passion – to borrow, in effect, a charge from another time and place. (p.52)

This is one of many passages where authors David Bayles and Ted Orlund communicate their philosophy of “artmaking” in their fine book Art and Fear. What we find over and over again in their position is that the key to remaining an artist has nothing to do with following the muses or chasing inspiration but in establishing steady work habits. The best way to refine your skills is to just work a lot. The best way to make a lot of good art is to just make a lot art. Sure, some of it will suck, but then some of it won’t.

Though the book deals mostly in the language of painting, the authors do make room in their discussion for sculptors, musicians, and occasionally dancers. Nearly everything they said can be applied directly to writing and even scholarly study (where my interest lies), though not all of it.

The book is short and takes a shot-gun approach to different topics. It makes it hard to blog about, so I’ll just be posting some of my favorite passages below and offering some brief comments.

On how you can’t just borrow meaning and power from other times and places. This makes me think of neo-pagans dressing up as druids in the forest and chanting about the holly – and checking their twitter feed on their iPhone during the slow moments. Uh, no.

Today, indeed, you can find urban white artists – people who could not reliably tell a coyote from a German shepherd at a hundred feet – casually incorporating the figure of Coyote the Trickster into their work. A premise common to all such efforts is that power can be borrowed across space and time. It cannot. There’s a different between meaning that is embodied and meaning that is referenced. As someone once said, no one should wear a Greek fisherman’s hat except a Greek fisherman. (p.55)

On average, the younger artists tends to experiment with a large and varied range of tools and materials, while the veteran artist tends to employ a small and specific set. (p.59)

You see this with a lot of old guys. Most even. Girard, Freud, Plato, you name it. If you have a nice hammer, everything looks like a nail. Younger guys are still trying to figure out what works.

I really liked this passage with some conjecture about Chopin. The idea that an artist has certain things he does to keep him warmed up or push through creative lulls are laziness – this seems to be a VERY important observation and something worth applying immediately.

The discovery of useful forms is precious. Once found, they should never be abandoned from trivial reasons. It’s easy to imagine today’s art instructor cautioning Chopin that the Mazurka thing is getting a little repetitive, that the work is not progressing. Well, true, it may not have been progressing – but that’s not the issue. Writing Mazurkas may have been useful only to Chopin – as a vehicle for getting back into the work, and as a place to begin making the next piece. For most artists, making good art depends upon making lots of art, and ANY device that carries the first brushstroke to the next blank canvas has tangible, practical value. (p.61)

I loved this quote – especially since I have a seven-year-old daughter who loves to draw.

When my daughter was about seven years old, she asked me one day what I did at work. I told her I worked at the college – that my job was to teach people how to draw. She stared back at me, incredulous, and said, “You mean they forget?” (p.79)

-Howard Ikemoto [A Japanese-American painter]

Here, a professor recounts how he was able to carve out time to keep working on his art, even with lots of time-consuming academic duties.

“From the day I was hired I began cultivating a reputation with the Art Department of being sort of a flake. I found that after a year or so of losing track of my committee assignments, forgetting to answer memos and missing departmental meetings – well, after a while they just stopped asking me to do all those things.” (p.85)

I have really mixed feelings about this sort of “planned flakiness”. Clever? Yes. Christian? Not exactly. Some of my favorite and LEAST favorite professors in university did something like this. The best ones blew off the waste and reinvested in their students personally. The crappy ones blew it off and reinvested in their own self-contained hobbies.

Some excellent commentary here on graduate school, especially in the arts:

That prospect is daunting enough that many artists drop out before ever completing their studies; others do graduate, but then – pressed by economics – find no way to continue artmaking afterwards. And yet others prolong the death-watch by entering graduate programs. The latter approach, placed atop fifteen-odd years of already-completed education, is superfluous at best and often actually harmful to the student’s artmaking capacity. (Jerry Uelsmann refers to coaxing art from graduate students as a process of “rehabilitating the over-educated”!)

This whole scenario is a tragedy seldom addressed by academics, and even then is rarely acknowledged as a failure of the system. Watching from a safely tenured vantage point, the system instead laments the failure of the student. Poor therapists, I’m told, always blame their clients. (p.88)

If the modern university is going to survive, it needs to stop making false promises. It will not survive – at least not on near as large a scale.

This section about over-focusing on technique rights true to me. This excerpt came after a section where he talked about how photography, for a couple decades anyway, had been taken over by folks whose chief concern was achieving a certain sort of color tone and contrast, to the ignorance of many other aspects.

An equivalent fate befell much of twentieth century symphonic music, which was seduced by arcane harmonic theory to the degree that its critical audience drifted progressively to other idioms (like jazz) that remained ground in the rhythms of the real world. (p.96)

Yes, a drive-by criticism of 12-tone atonality. But it deserves it.

What do you practice? What do you work toward? As a musician, I often feel limited by my technique. However, there is an easier solution to this than the composer who feels limited by lack of ideas.

While mastering a technique is difficult and time-consuming, it’s still inherently easier to reach an already defined goal – a “right answer” – than to give form to a new idea. (p.96)

This principal can be seen daily in Ph.D. dissertations and other scholarship. It’s a lot easier to recycle someone else’s work and synthesize it into a 400-page paper then to come up with your own clever idea.

Simply put, art that deals with ideas is more interesting than art that deals with technique. (p.97)

This is true and also explains the appeal of much pop music that may not necessarily have proper technique. I once heard a man tell me how much he hated Sheryl Crow’s music because “she can’t sing worth crap”. Well, though I’m not a big fan, I still like some of her stuff. It’s interesting because of the ideas (the songwriting, the emotion, the Americana), not her raw singing technique. If you just want that, listen to Dawn Upshaw.

For scholars, some of their best works is often their sloppiest since it is about ideas and not footnote density.

G.K Chesterton is quoted (on page 101). He’s referred to as a mathematician though. Ha! Oops.

Try, if you can, to reoccupy your own aesthetic space of a few years back, or even a few months. There is no way. You can only plunge ahead, even when that carries with it the bittersweet realization that you have already done your very best work. (p.54)

“Occupy aesthetic space” eh? Gosh, for just a sec I thought I was back to reading Kierkegaard.

A great description here of growth. This is exciting.

It’s demonstrably true that all of us do (from time to time) experience conceptual jumps, and while ours may not affect the orbit of planets [like Newton], they markedly affect the way we engage the world around us. Study French, for instance, and you’ll likely spend the first month painstakingly translating it word by word into English to make it understandable. Then one day – voila! – you find yourself reading French without translating it, and a process that was previously enigmatic has become automatic. Or go mushroom hunting with someone who really knows mushrooms, and you’ll first endure some downright humiliating outings in which the expert finds all the mushrooms and you find none. But then at some point the world shifts, the woods magically fill – mushrooms everywhere! – and a view that was previously opaque has become transparent. (p.110)

Religious conversion is like this too.

And continuing…

For the artist, such lighting shifts are a central mechanism of change. They generate the purest form of metaphor: connections are made between unlike things, meanings from one enrich the meanings of the other, and the unlike things become inseparable. Before the leap there was light and shadow. Afterwards, objects float in a space where light and shadow are indistinguishable from the object they define.

This sounds a bit like “you can win with the hand you’re dealt.” It would be probably more accurate to say “you can only play with the hand you’re dealt.”

We tell the stories we have to tell, stories of the things that draw us in – and why should any of us have more than a handful of those? The only work really worth doing – the only work you CAN do convincingly – is the work that focuses on the things you care about. To not focus on those issues is to deny the constants in your life. (p.116)

Overall, I really liked this book. It was a lot better than “War and Art”. It’s one of those that is worth rereading again in a few years.


Post-user software

“Post-modernist art is, above all, post-audience art.”

-Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, ref on p.54 of Art and Fear

I would like to add my own corralary to this fine quote:

“Enterprise software is, above all, post-user software.”


Another way in which constraint makes better art (and more)

Tolkien illustrator Alan Lee comments in his afterward to Tales from the Perilous Realm that most of Tolkien’s work had a specific person in mind as their audience. The Hobbit, as well as pretty much all of his short stories, each had an actual child he knew who was to become the first person to hear them – read out-loud typically. This is an additional constraint. You can’t say just anything you want, you need to put it in words that particular person will understand and enjoy. You may flavor the story a certain way – maybe mix in some things you know that person will like. The result though is a more powerful piece of artwork (in this case, fiction). By forcing yourself to write for a real person (out of love, not harsh constraints) you end up producing something that is better than if you set out to write something for generic children. Too many possibilities paralyze. By narrowing your parameters, you free yourself. More of the pieces fall into place without the exertion of willful thought.

Composers did this too. Most of the famous concertos were written with a particular soloist in mind. Does this limit the piece so only that person can play it? No – anyone can still play it. It’s just as good. But it makes it easier to write. More likely to ACTUALLY get written instead of abandoned. Vaughn Williams famous Tallis Fantasia has some of the best orchestration for strings *ever*. Why? Well, I would like to suggest that it is perhaps because Ralph could focus on the arranging since the melody (and even harmony) were already taken care of. A constraint? Yes, but a freeing one.

You can apply this to art, writing, and all sorts of endeavors.

Joan Didion nailed this issue squarely (and with trademark pessimism) when she said, “What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first TWO sentences, you options are all gone.”

It’s the same for all media: the first few brushstrokes to the blank canvas satisfy the requirements of many possible paintings, while the last few fit only THAT painting – they could go nowhere else. The development of an imagined pieces into an actual piece is a progression of decreasing possibilities, as each step in execution reduces future options by converting one – and only one – possibility into a reality. Finally, at some point or another, the piece could not be other than it is, and it is done.

-Art and Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland

To pull together one more scrap – Singer/songwriter Jennifer Knapp (who I saw in concert a couple years ago) sings about her partner:

You’re no ball and chain, your the comfort.
I love the steady pull, I love the steady pull.

This is the freeing constraint of marriage.