Chapel

Arts Week: Q&A with Ken Myers

Ken Myers, President and Executive Producer of Mars Hill Audio Journal conducts a question and answer session with the students in attendance alongside of Dr. Reg Grant, Chair of Media Arts and Worship.

Transcript

Reg Grant:                

Well, here we are.

Ken Myer:                  

I’m going to get my ammo bag.

Reg Grant:                

Oh right, go ahead buddy. This is going to be an opportunity for us to interact with Ken Myers. He’s been gracious enough to go over to Mitchell after these messages and spent considerable time visiting. Yesterday he was there well past two, 3:30 it was visiting and that is… if you’ve ever done public speaking or especially conference where you’re back to back and then you have people lined up who would love to visit with you. The tendency is to have a rescuer, somebody to intercede to say Mr. Myers really needs to go to his room now and get some rest, we did not have such person appointed. So he was there and graciously let us ask him questions. I was there for most of it but then I had to leave and I abandoned him.

All right, we’re going to engage in a few questions. I have a couple to start as often, I think one of the questions that I would like to — this is how we’re going to do it, I’m going to ask two or three questions, we’ll get up to about 11-ish and then I’m going to turn it over and we can interact, we can have a conversation.

First question, just practically speaking, are there some books that has been most influential to you on beauty, on shaping your concept of what constitutes beauty and could you share those with us?

Ken Myers:                

Yeah. I’m still for 40 years trying to figure out the beauty thing but I think on imagination if I could answer the question, I want to answer instead of the one you asked, I could have a career in politics. Years ago probably the late 60’s before I started reading these things, I was in high school. My dad renewed his subscription to Christianity Today magazine and got a free copy of the book by Thomas Howard called An Antique Drum and a couple years later I stole it from him and never gave it back and it’s now, it’s still in print, it’s called Chance of the Dance and it’s really on imagination. I reread two chapters with the reading group at UVA. I won’t go into why, it’s cultural moment shows, that is when it was written as evident. That was I think was one of the first books that really helped me understand the idea of imagination as the recognition of likenesses one thing to another but also the idea that God has created the world so the likenesses will be perceived. We live in a world of abundant metaphors that are intentionally placed by God. I have a bumper sticker that says poetry happens. It’s not currently on my pick-up truck but I had —

Reg Grant:                

You drive a pick-up truck?

Ken Myers:                

I drive a pick-up truck, yeah. I have a chainsaw.

Reg Grant:                

Do you? I do too.

Ken Myers:                

Yeah and the scars to prove it. Almost. I was talking about this idea that metaphors are embedded in reality and God has created the world in such a way that we find in the stuff of creation like gold and honey in Psalm 19. I think God gave us gold and honey in part to convey the subjective experience that we have from gold and honey which can then — it’s subjectively there. The subject of experience is objectively there and it’s there for us to appropriate and poetry or other forms. So Howard’s book was the first book that suggested that to me.

I’m trying to think by which book by CS Lewis helped me started to think about this so I can’t identify anyone. Later, much more recently, I read an essay, in fact I have a copy with me. You can get this online, George McDonald who I mentioned before, who was instrumental and CS Lewis has his own conversion which counts for something when we think. An essay of his called Imagination. Its functions and its culture and by culture he means cultivation, how do you cultivate or the imagination.

And it’s one of the best short essays I’ve read on this idea again that God has placed tangible, visible, sensory experiences within creation which as suitable and fitting for the expression, both of eternal realities but also of the deepest internal realities and the connection between them. 

I think another book that I read, like I said I’m still working through the beauty thing but on imagination, there’s a book called Poetic Knowledge which I think I probably cite in lecturing and writing more than almost any other by a guy named James Taylor, not the singer guy. It’s really a summary of some really, really old ideas about how poetic expression communicates and he makes the argument that poetic expression is real knowledge, that it conveys real knowledge in a distinctive way that an analytic approach to reasoning does not convey. So take that Psalm 19, there’s this great short hand that says that God’s commands are like honey. You could spell out in an analytic outline the nature of our response and to God’s commands when we’re rightly ordered but to say that they’re like honey jumps to the nature of the reality but the point is that when the likeness like that is made, the experience — it’s an actual experience of what’s called the form of honey that conveys the knowledge. So it’s not a propositional discursive, analytic conclusion that we come to but it’s an intuitive knowledge but it’s real knowledge.

Reg Grant:                

But almost this world, there’s a kind of a reality in that response that’s immediate —

Ken Myers:                

It’s immediate because of the fact that the phrase it’s used as early as Aquinas, it’s code natural that is the experience the aesthetic form is of the same nature as the thing that the form is describing. So if you want to write a poem describing the experience of softness, it’d be easier to write that in Italian than German. I actually years ago, when I was in NPR produced an interview with Jorge Luis Borges, he’s a great novelist who said he loved writing poetry in English because it gave him a palette that he didn’t have in his native tongue. I can’t remember if he’s Portuguese or Spanish, I think he was Spanish. He was Argentinean. Sorry.

Because of the fact that you could take all of the mellifluous romance side of English with words like mellifluous and the stark, harsh, dramanic monosyllabic side of English and English has absorbed both the romance and Anglo-Saxon dramanic which tends to have a lot more case and precursive consonants and not the sweeter, more liquid consonants and vowels.

Reg Grant:                

It’s interesting, maybe point of contact. When Lewis was a young fellow sitting in his — of all places, doctor’s office and there happened to be a volume of Siegfried and the Twilight of God which is a composite of two of the literary expressions of Wagner — actually, Wagner based his ringtology on Siegfried, stories of Siegfried. It was open to an illustration of the death of Brunhilde and he glanced at that as this young man, he saw that with illustrations by Rackham, Arthur Rackham, he said, “My soul was embraced by northerness and I never recovered.”

Now there’s Wagner, you can’t get more German but he’s the martial quality of Wagner, translated into this gorgeous illustration by Rackham which then the poetic nature of that immersed —

Ken Myers:                

Yeah. And if the illustration does justice to it, that’s the key. So if there is this experience of northerness as they call it which has an assembly of different sensibility and virtues and beliefs or vices, possible. An artist have to figure out how do I capture and convey those sensibilities so that the experience of line and color and shading doesn’t just remind people intellectually of those sensibilities. But actually is a little subset experience of the thing itself. The term that Aquinas uses and that James Taylor in his book Poetic Knowledge uses his co-natural knowledge so that creative expression at its best captures the sense of the thing that’s — the form matches the content would be the really simple way. Why didn’t I think of that before?

I’ll tell you another example, something I learned when I worked at NPR. I worked for years with a poet name John Ciardi, you may know his work and minor American poet, used to be well-known 60’s, 70’s — 50’s, 60’s, 70’s died in the 80’s. And Ciardi, when I was in high school, I used to read the Saturday Review of Literature, I was so nerdy. In 10th grade I discovered a magazine called The Saturday Review of Literature which is like Harper’s to the New Yorker today, there’s really nothing like it today actually. Suddenly, the whole world of art and culture and literature opened up to me that I had not been aware of and I veraciously read this magazine, not understanding 95% what they were talking about but I knew it was very important and I subscribed to it and would clip the clever witty cartoons which were New Yorker cartoons and I had my whole wall. Other kids had posters of their favorite sports figure or the bands they like. I had cartoons from the Saturday Review of Literature, it did not go well.

And there was a column in that by John Ciardi, who I didn’t know his work called Manner of Speaking and Ciardi had spent years researching the origins of various idiomatic expressions in English, slang terms between the devil and the deep blue sea, for instance or all sorts of idioms and slang terms and he would look at how often they were misinterpreted or there would be folk etymologies that is alleged stories where they came from. And then what they’re most likely real stories.

I was just fascinated because I’m interested in Language from pretty early. Anyway, proposed NPR that they bring him in as a commentator and we did a series, it was called The Word in your Ear that was a 5-minute weekly program which when morning edition went on air, it was then the morning edition once a week and I work with him regularly. Ciardi, I had actually — after high school, went I went to college, I read Dante’s Divine Comedy in John Ciardi’s translation which still in print and that’s how most people of Ciardi. Most people never read his poetry but they’ve read his translation of Dante.

The translator’s essay, the introductory essay in the Inferno volume where he explains the challenge of translating Dante from Italian is brilliant because it shows, again it reveals from the inside how a poetry functions and how a translator has to recognize the nature of the functioning well beyond just doing just to the lexical meaning of the words. And I’ll never forget one of the things he says that poetry, he says a good translator has to capture what you call the musculature of the poetry.

So if a word, if a line has a lot of sounds, a lot of s sounds and assonants and often you see this really good poets. If you want to talk about snakes and slytherin and slithering, you use hissing sounds regularly through at it. So he says, if you’ve got — if the poet has been very deliberate to use essentially percussive effects but also making your mouth do something and your face do something so that certain words, you have to grimace when you say them in other words, if you have long, open vowels, your faces elongated. He says bad experience is part of the poem. There’s a sense in which you are dancing the poem when you read it and he says a poet has to capture that so that what your body is doing is resonating with the emotion or what’s going on the narrative as well.            That’s another instance.

So I think that that idea — that’s why I spent so much time talking about the incarnation because our bodies are involved in imagination on an inescapably. Somebody, I read not long ago described music, all music is virtual dance that is all music is inviting the body to do one thing or another.

Reg Grant:                

I think all poetry does the same.

Ken Myers:                

All poetry has a similar thing even something like architecture invites you — a good building invites you to walk through it and obviously you experience a space and the configuration of spaces. You don’t just perceive it with your eyes, you perceive it with your own body.

Reg Grant:                

Just to add on to the Dante reference, for your edification, there’s a wonderful little book that not many people know from CS Lewis called the Discarded Image where he contrast — for example Dante and Milton and their effect, their overall effect on the reading public and have those work shaped and reflected the theology of their times. One of my favorite — I’d love to know if Ciardi had an influence or vice versa of Christopher Ricks who is my favorite Miltonic scholar. If you find any works by Milton with notes by Christopher Ricks, his work in Paradise Lost is exquisite. If you had that CS Lewis’ introduction or prefaced  Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost, you just have everything that you need, I think for really entering into that work and then being able to contrast it with Dante’s vastly very different images of heaven and hell and salvation.

Let’s open it up to — please come to the mics and ask your questions. All right, make your way, this is your time. Sarah, good to see you.

Sarah:                        

Hi, my question is, we can have art shows and we can have performances basically, that’s like the first step and talk about the redemptive quality of imagination. What I want to know is what is the next step, what kind of opportunities can we create to give church members like ownership of the arts?

Ken Myers:                

Well, that’s going to depend a lot, it’s going to differ congregation to congregation and it’s going to differ in different denominational traditions to some extent although probably not as much as the local difference. I mean I think… I don’t want to… this is a big project, okay? As I said in my opening comments, 20th century fundamental and evangelicals haven’t typically been known for a strong commitment to these issues but that only reflects and even longer disconnect which is part of the whole story of modern culture and its — I mean beginning in the 18th century, beauty is divorced from truth and goodness, imagination is entirely subjectivized, it’s totally personalized, it’s not tied to creation and the belief and an ordered creation starts to abandon and Christians — oh, I never leave this on and I never get calls.

It’s like this feel that’s been left to go wild for a long time and there’s a lot of work to be done. I think that one of the things I encourage about is the work being done in Christian schools. I think that if people, if we wait and I don’t want to sound too fatalistic, but if you wait until people are in their 30’s or 40’s to start trying to get them to not just think about but to have practices in their lives that encourage and nurture attentive, imaginative life. I’m not saying It’s too late but it’s really a lot to work again.

Reg Grant:                

How might we — if you want to broach this subject, in the local church context, train aesthetic.

Ken Myers:                

And I think, so the more that can be done with young children the better and the more they can be done thoughtfully with young children to start with, the better and that means…I said in a comment in the faculty yesterday, we have largely turned over the shaping of the imagination of our kids to mass media and parents instinctively say let’s get safe mass media, at least let’s get, but often it’s only safe in terms of content. It’s not necessarily because often sad to say, a lot — my background, I’m a mass media guy. The only time I ever got fired from a job was working for a Christian radio station and partly because I was trying to do some unconventional things that I felt a Christian understanding of imagination ought to pursue but those unconventional things weren’t recognizably good by people who’s attitude toward imagination had been shaped by secular mass media, that is by skeptical or secularized mass media, let me put it that way.

So I’d say from the time kids are really, really little to expose them to really good stories and stories that are good not because they’re moral but stories that are good also because they’re well constructed and artfully told to expose them to nature as much as possible because I think creation is the source of all good imaginative life and to good works and visual arts and musical.

Reg Grant:                

Can I add one quick thing to this one before I forget. Clifton Fadiman, it’s an excellent anthology that’s called The World Treasury of Children’s Literature and it incorporates nature. It is three volumes and they are graduated according to the age of the child and its world literature. That is the best literature, everything from Russian folktales to American British European literature.

Ken Myers:                

So for kids that’s the first thing. I mean I think probably the biggest hurdle to overcome maybe the sense that people have this luxury or it’s optional or it’s too feminine. This is a problem that oddly enough, I mean one of the problems in modern culture is the assumption that it’s the subject of soft side of life, it’s something women were like but not for us guys. We’re going to do the ESPN thing.

I wish there’d been better aesthetic choices made with Promise Keepers, for instance. So there has to be some teaching. Practically, we’ve done stuff in our own church. I’ve done — well, I’ve done some lecturing on musical literacy particularly. We’ve also done things where we’ve taken a couple of years ago during Lent, during the period before Easter. We watched a video of box Saint John passion and everybody had copies and text with them and we got a big screen and had about 40 people in the church come out and watch that.

You can do things like that. I think I remember Sunday school class, when I was in high school or college, I guess it was in college. At our church, thought by one of the elders who later on went out to be            a pastor but who had really read CS Lewis’s work. It was a class on Lewis and Imagination particularly. Lewis’s always convenient because people trust him as an apologist so you can talk about his view of imagination in that sense.

I’m actually… I’m hoping to start a project with Marcel Audio to create curriculum materials for small group study on musical literacy, on the nature of musical meaning. I think we tend to think of music — again, we tend to think of music as unpleasant noise and we just look for the noise that we feel as most pleasant and that’s how we select music but the idea that music can convey meaning in some way. We have been trained to be active non listeners to music. We have so much music in the background in our lives. I can’t believe I go to the gas station, there’s music playing in this teeny horrible speakers at the pump. Why do I need that? And everywhere we go, we’ve got background music and so we learn not to listen. And then most people are multi taskers, there’s music in the background. Very few people I know ever sit just to listen to music and to attend to what’s going on in it. It’s just something that’s going on the background.

Reg Grant:                

This really fits CS Lewis in the Screwtape Letters said that if you want to distract, your patient, the person who’s being tempted, one of the best things that you can do is fill his world with noise.

Ken Myers:                

Oh yeah. In fact Screwtape says that — in fact that’s a very pivotal letter because he says that in the inferno regions of our father below, great research had been going on and they made progress in the development of more and more noise because it says there are two things one never experience in the kingdom of our father below, music and silence. It’s useful to remember that the capital of hell, anybody know the capital of hell in Milton’s? Is there like a central… Pandemonium, thank you very much. So I think that active listening opportunities, guided listening. I wondered for a long time, there’s thousands and thousands of book groups for people who read books and come to discuss them but almost no music groups listen to music and then come and talk about the way and not talk about the text of the lyrics but talk about the structure of the music and how it works or why it does work.

Reg Grant:                

And going into the negative — okay, we’re going to get you brother.

Ken Myers:                

So I hope that’s helpful.  

Reg Grant:                

Okay, I’m sorry. Let me ask one quick thing to follow up and then come on it, all right? We need negatively, on the negative side, there needs to be a deterrents from these as you have said trivializing forms of imaginative expression in order to help shape the positive, there has to be some bit of restriction from those trivializing form.

Ken Myers:                

Well yeah, I mean I think we need to recognize just as we recognize with junk food that there might be experiences that might be pleasant, that  might not be… well, as St Paul says all things are permissible but not everything is edified. So it’s not a question of, is it sinful for me to do this? It’s the question of, is it going to enrich my imaginative life most fully? Not so I can brag about it but because it’s a blessing. It’s a good thing.

Reg Grant:                

Okay, sorry.

Audience:                 

My question Mr. Myers is it goes towards story telling. What would your advice be to story tellers would it be fiction, would it be film or music that desire to paint the church with the consistent picture of what we would view as Christian doctrine but not through lenses. For example some of the churches actively where they do the crusades, whatever, they may be… How do we paint a portion of the church that leads to a perfect Christ despite our own imperfection?

Ken Myers:                

In what setting are you talking about the story telling?

Audience:                 

I guess if you can comment would it be from one church to the church or just the church to the second world in general.

Ken Myers:                

Yeah, I mean I’m grateful that there’s been a real recovery of the power of story and narrative in my lifetime that people are more and more recognized that. And so there are lot of people who’ve given instruction and unfortunately none of the titles occur to me right away on how — well, I think in some of you doing Peterson’s books. Probably intake and read and eat this book, two of those books. He comments on how stories work and how not to let an effort of storytelling mutate into making an argument.

I’ve never tried my hand at fiction. I do not have the discipline to stop making arguments and preaching but there’s a lot of advice. I mean I think that to appreciate the narrative structure of scripture itself, first of all the big story of scripture. I grew up, I remember at my grandmother’s house, she had this little thing on the table, kitchen table, full of plastic thing in a shape of a loaf of bread that had this little cards with bible verses on them and you can pick at random and get a little encouragement through a random bible verse and I wasn’t until I was in college that I realized the bible was a coherent book because I had this lucky deep approach to the bible for a long time and that it was basically a random collection of insights.

First of all what that prevented me from seeing was that actually there was something you could call systematic theology that is for something — there was systematic truth but also that it was — and it took me longer to realize that it was actually, it was the story of God’s encounter — well, it was a story of creation, fall and redemption and that we are still part of the same story. So I’d say whenever it’s possible and I think for clergy, whenever they preach on the Old Testament text, the tendency it seems to me is to try to take some moralistic lesson from the Old Testament text rather than setting the Old Testament text in question in the context of Israel’s whole history and how Israel’s history leads into the history of Christ and the Church so I’d say attentiveness to the story that is already present there. And I’m not sure if I’m really answering your question whether you’re really interested in how we… whether we’re really attentive to the narrative or if you’re asking how do we make our lived out story more faithful.

Well, again and I think that that’s… I remember I interviewed, I think it was Larry Woiwode who’s a novelist, Christian novelist and I was reading an essay he’d written actually, not one of his novels and I confessed that I realized that when I meet people, it’s very tempting for me to try to figure out what arguments they represent rather than trying to enter into the story of their life and to understand that they are at a point of a narrative also.

I see them as either arguments to nurture and encourage or arguments to rebut. I hope I’ve gotten over some of these but I think my native tendency was as an apologist but an apologist who is principally not about recognizing the actual situatedness of a person in their own life story. Now that can go to extremes, people can blog about every detail of their life to the point where these little micro narratives really become a real new, actually obscure the big story of their life.

So maybe one way that the story of our churches can become a more beautiful story, I think that’s part of what you’re asking is for us to be attentive to where people are in the story that God is telling through their life, possibly which doesn’t mean that… sometimes people say this is my story as if where I’m going and what I do is above criticism because it’s my story. That’s not at all what I mean, I assume everyone knows that. I hope that’s a little bit helpful.

Reg Grant:                

To attend to the scripture as he was saying, the story as story and not to feel this need as Ken said to extract a moralizing principle and then people don’t do that in their story. They don’t look at the story of their lives and say you know what I need to do, I need to extract a moral principle from this and then analyze it under a microscope. They just live it. So my objective is to take that Old Testament or New Testament narrative story to find the parallel, similarities, the connecting the dots between the struggle in Israel and the struggle in the life of my contemporary.

CS Lewis struggled with this. He struggled with it as an apologist and pretty much a left brain guy, he even said before left and right brain studies were in vogue, he said on the one side of my brain is a many island to the sea of poetry and the myth, on the other a glib and shallow rationalism. How did he know that? How can he intuit that? Well it was brilliant, for one thing. And then he wrote Until We Have Faces, and that was his favorite work because he felt like he melded the two. He let the story function which is just the Cupid and Psyche myth retold. He melded it into and let the story function as story.

So it’s always a challenge for us who want to pluck the hair on a flea who want to extract and reduce and then deconstruct the rose and tape it back and pretend it’s like a rose, it’s not. That don’t invite people into the morgue, you invite them to a church and see resurrection. You don’t show them an autopsy on the text. Another question, yeah.

Audience:                 

One takeaway that personally I’ve had from your talks is just the concept that we need to relearn how we experience and the understanding who God is and specifically with dualism, I’ve been thinking about with my generation how it really run so deep and how we view decisions and experiences and over abundance of options and instant gratification culture has devalued meaning and really anything and I’ve realized for me personally, I think a lot of my peers, it makes our — the way we look at life as though there is a distinction between spiritual and physical when it comes to our decisions and that there are options as far as food, music, arts, film and activities and books and how we spend our time that don’t have any meaning and that God is not part of that and I’ve just had a feeling that’s a big problem in general on how we just interact in life and I was curious on what your opinion is about, is there a distinction at all between really minuscule things and how you decide of what toothbrush you buy for example or as we get that small but really, how do we help people see how to re-understand our interaction with our decisions and that distinction?  

Ken Myers:                

That’s a great question and I think that the over abundance of choice has lots of consequences. It ends up as you suggested conveying the sense that none of it matters, first of all, that none of these decisions and that much of our life is involved with making meaningless choices and there’s an app for that so maybe we can’t avoid it.

One of the things that I think that encourages is the sense of irony that is very desctructive and I mean, I remember the first time a t-shirt that said Whatever. That’s actually a sensibility that is very, very destructive, I think. And it’s not that we want to regard every decision as fraught with ultimate consequence and yet there are… again if we think about building a life that has a shape to it and a coherence and a beauty about it and another metaphor would be an adequate rhythm to it rather than just living life. That’s very hard, there are a lot of forces against us not just intellectual forces.

Now I realized, I don’t know some of you will be familiar with the definition probably in the 80’s of Jean Francois Leotard talks about the post modern involving the implausibility of modern narrative, is that the term? Yeah, that is to be post modern means that we can’t believe that there’s a big story that explains reality. I’ve heard that for years and read various critics and enthusiast for post modernity and post modernism and thought well, that was philosophical position but only recently have I realized that the reason why many young people, let’s say 40 and under and maybe even older than that older than people. People who have grown up in the late 20th century, the reason why they find the notion that there’s a story about all of reality, implausible, it’s because their everyday life, experience of everyday life. There’s nothing patterned, there’s nothing given, there’s no script that they are introduced to that would tell the story of their life. There are very few rituals, there are very few rites of passage that everybody tells their story their own way.

So in the face of that and that ties very much with your idea of… everything’s optional. I would recommend you read a book called Mediated by Thomas de Zengotita and it’s ostensibly of media criticism, Mediated: How the Media Affect How We Think and Feel or something like that, I can’t remember the exact subtitle. But it is one of the best descriptions I’ve ever read of the sense of utility, of what you could call the post modern spirit although I don’t think he uses the term post modern and a lot of it it’s all about options. I did an interview with him and one of the things we focused on was he said, for people — and he’s actually a little older than I am so this is not just young people. These are middle age people who don’t realize — late middle age people don’t realize that they’re not young people anymore. He says optionality, when everything is optional, then there is no sense of necessity and he said, I have friends now who were in their 60’s, some of their friends have died and they’re facing the possibility of their own death, how interesting. I might die. It’s an option. And he said what I find is they’re not gripped by fear, they’re offended by it because nobody gave them a choice whether or not die.

And sometimes I’ve wondered whether the voluntary euthanasia is in part driven not just by horrible suffering but by the idea that we want to be choosers right to the very end, we want to choose. So I think it is a very destructive mentality that the answer, I mean I guess a glib answer would be to think about living deliberately and living in sense of consistent pattern.

Reg Grant:                

Would you join me in thanking Ken Myers for…

Ken Myers:                

Thank you. 

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