If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Going to Mars for Halloween

Tomorrow night is Halloween, from All Hallows Eve or the evening before All Saints Day. Even more originally Halloween goes back to a Celtic harvest festival known as Samhain, when the earth began to die as the warm season moved toward winter, the veil between the world of the flesh and the world of the spirit grew thin, bonfires were lit, and costumes and masks were worn to placate or confuse the evil spirits.

As a kid I loved Halloween. What am I saying? I still love Halloween. I was into all things gorey, scarey, and monstrous. Several times in grade school I won the best costume prize at ghoulish gatherings. In the 7th grade I played a scientist surrounded by test tubes, a coffin, and Frankenstein monster as I lip synced "Monster Mash" at a PTA meeting. In my 8th grade yearbook (1963), which I illustrated, my "Last Will and Testament," before going off to high school, said: "I, Leo Hartshorn, being of gory mind, leave my frozen eyeball and all that jazz to Harry Alley. With a name like that he could be my assistant!" My favorite song was, you guessed it----Monster Mash. My favorite movie---House on a Haunted Hill. My nickname---MAD. My favorite actor and actress---Boris Karloff and Betty Davis. My favorite magazine---Monster. I lived in a perpetual state of Halloween!

Maybe that's why I recently bought a compilation of Chris Mar's artwork entitled Tolerance. The art of Mars is a fitting backdrop for Halloween. Mars was a former member of an alternate Rock group, the Replacements, before he dedicated his time to painting. His haunting images were influenced by his many visits to his brother, who is schizophrenic, leading him to explore the dehumanizing treatment of the mentally ill, the dispossessed, the marginalized, the Other. His paintings can be described as creepy, ghoulish, gruesome, repulsive, twisted. demented and deformed. With the technical precision of a Renaissance artist Mars populates his canvases with dark, deformed and distorted creatures, often with an underlying message. Politics, religion and social commentary are stabbed at with the sharp knife through his sick scenarios of human horror. Like Irving Norman, he believes that art can change the world. Mars defines his mission as:

To free the oppressed; to champion the persecuted, and the submissive; to liberate through revelation the actualized Self in those proposed by some to have no self at all. It’s in every single one of us, somewhere underneath that word on our chest. In my hands, my version: All art is political in some sense, be it through conformity, reflection, propaganda or rebellion. My paintings are rallies and trials, photographs of a moment when Truth was made public, and Mercy known.

Mars macabre paintings are not for the faint of heart, but may be a monster-lovers delight for persons, like myself, who revel in the ghoulish, especially with social, political and religious commentary.

Enter his chamber of horrors, if you dare!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Breaking through urban concrete

This past weekend I was in New York City for a gathering of Mennonite Urban leaders. The title of the conference was Breaking through Urban Concrete: How Agents of Good News Can Infiltrate Heirarchies of Power. An image that was used was of seeds, though small and vulnerable, that have the power to break through the cracks and spaces of concrete in the inner city and bring life.

It was my second time in Manhattan. The first time I visited, preached and drummed in three churches in the Bronx, North Bronx, and Manhattan. I drove my car, which was a big mistake. It was a nightmare getting around the city, especially following someone at a break neck pace and trying to find parking in that concrete jungle.
This visit I decided to take the train from Lancaster and take the subway to my conference. It was first time on the subway trams. I walked into an underground city jammed with people. When I rode the trains passengers were packed into these mobile cans like anonymous sardines. Emerging from the underground world the streets were crowded with people walking by each other going their own separate ways. Out my window at St. Hilda's House on 113th Street I could see rows and rows of tall tenement buildings with people stacked like blocks one on top of another floor upon floor. All in their separate spaces, living in their own separate worlds.

The subway ride, the tenements, the packed streets visually reminded me of the socially conscious art of Irving Norman. He has been called an "artist of the human predicament" and his work as "social surrealism." He painted the city as an Orwellian dystopia of modern life. His canvases from the 40's are stabbing social critiques of modernization, urbanization, dehumanizing technology, a mindless workforce, and the atrocities of war. Norman was under FBI surveillance for 20 years because of his political convictions. His large scale canvases are crowded with jewel colored images of clone-like, dehumanized people packed into a dense landscape of buildings, caught in rush hour traffic, or crucified by the machine of war. They were painted with the hope for social change. A book of Norman's works were exhibited at the Crocker Art Museum as Dark Metropolis. Coincidentally, there is an exhibit of Irving Norman's work this month in New York City.

Breaking through urban concrete. It was an appropriate theme for the seeds that these Mennonite churches in New York are planting in hope for change, for life to break through the urban concrete of dehumanization, violence, anonymity, and the power structures that dominate people's lives.

Down by the Riverside

Yesterday morning I attended the Sunday service of the historic Riverside Church in New York City. On the bulletin the church describes itself as "interdenomination, interracial, international, open, affirming, and welcoming." It is affiliated with both the American Baptist Churches, U.S.A. and the United Church of Christ. Riverside has had a number of well known pastors, such as Rev. Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick )(1930-1946), Rev. Dr. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. (1977-1987) and most recently Rev. Dr. James Forbes, Jr. (1989-2007). At the service I attended they were welcoming their new pastor Rev. Dr. Brad Braxton.

It just happened to be their Stewardship Sunday, so the theme of the service was on abundance and giving. I wanted to stay for the service, but had some dread about remaining for a tradition Stewardship Sunday. Even though Stewardship was the theme, social justice, a theme that has rang loud and clear from the church's pulpit for many years, could still be heard echoing throughout the service. Peace and social justice were not overwhelmed by Sunday's theme, the extravagance of the cathedral and its many stained glass windows or the beautiful sounds of a visiting choir and orchestra from Sweden. I still heard the words of justice and ring out in the prayers, litanies, ministries, hymns, and preaching.

I was reminded of the words of another preacher whose voice rang out loud like a bell for justice and peace from the pulpit of Riverside---Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His address was delivered at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned on April 4, 1967, exactly a year before his assasination. His message was entitled "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence." His speech was written by Dr. Vincent Harding, who I have had the pleasure to know since 2003, MLK's close friend. It was a historic address in which for the first time he linked the Vietnam War and the Southern Freedom movement. King preached at Riverside:

Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns, this query has often loomed large and loud: "Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent?" "Peace and civil rights don't mix," they say. "Aren't you hurting the cause of your people?" they ask. And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling.

King went out to point out that his was a vocation of peacemaking, which meant he had to "love his enemies":

But even if it were not present, I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me, the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the Good News was meant for all men (sic) -- for communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? What then can I say to the Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this one? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?

At the end of his address he outlined a trinity of injustices that must be opposed:

Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.

King's Vietnam speech at Riverside Church is one that we should all revisit, particularly in the context of the Iraq War, the costs of our military industrial complex, the widening gap between the rich and poor, and the hidden agenda of race in the current presidential campaign and upcoming elections. I thought of heard King's voice still echoing down by the Riverside.

Friday, October 24, 2008


Last night my wife, Iris, and I went to see Oliver Stone's W., a biopic of George Bush. Since it was produced by an acknowledged liberal, I thought it was going to be even more of a Saturday Night Live caricaturized satire than it was. What I observed was that Stone portrayed Bush as a flawed human struggling to make something of his life. In that sense it is sympathetic as it reflects on Bush's journey from a hard drinking party boy to born again Christian to Texas governor to President of the United States.

A major theme of the film was the strained relationship between George Bush Junior and Senior. This was presented as a key factor in W's determination to enter politics, ascend to the presidency, and deal with Sadam Hussein. We see clearly Bush Jr.'s determination to finish the job with Sadam that he felt his father did not complete. No one will be surprised by the portrayal of behind-the-scenes deception and power brokering. That's old news.

Maybe that's why I, and Iris, came away from the movie feeling like there was nothing new here. We have seen this before, not as a personal story but as a story played out on political stage. For me the film was not so much a drama of Bush's human struggle to make something of himself under the looming shadow of his father as it was a disturbing reminder of 8 years of bad global politics, neglected domestic social policy, trickle-down economics, bullheaded unilateralism, premptive war, political powerbrokering, the grinding machinations of war and the dominance of right-wing religion and idealogy. This is the story that was being played out while a majority of Americans supported the war in Iraq, gave Bush high approval ratings, accepted the flag waving media's version of what was going on, and re-elected W. for a second term.

This film reminded me that it wasn't the death of 100's of thousands of soldiers and innocent Iraqi's that turned public opinion against George W. Bush Jr., who was struggling to make something of himself on the world stage and following what he believed to be a calling from God. It was the mounting loss of U.S. soldiers, the constant images of violence and death in Iraq on the media, the uncovering of lies and deceptions leading to the war, which many of us were aware of from the get-go, and now the collapse of the U.S. economy which has turned public opinion against W.

As a personal story one might see W. and be inspired by the human struggle and determination to achieve success. As a story that was played out on a national and global stage, it should be a cautionary tale of hubris, power, ideologically-driven politics, war, and deception.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Readings for Radicals

In my free time in the evenings I have been working on illustrating a new peace and justice lectionary guide entitled Readings for Radicals. I list and describe all the peace and justice themed texts of the three year cycle of the Christian year from the Revised Common Lectionary. It took about 3-4 months to read through the three years of lectionary texts, list and describe them, along with brief intros to each season.

I have completed one ink drawing for the Christmas season entitled Prince of Peace. Now I am working on the illustration for the Pentecost season. Each illustration takes about 8-10 hours. I only have a couple hours a night to work on them, after my four-year-old grandson, Gavin, is asleep. I hope to have 8 illustrations completed by December.

I have been in conversation with several New Testament professors, Herald Press, and the Communication staff at Mennonite Mission Network about how to produce the lectionary. It looks like that it will first be made available on the internet and hopefully printed before Advent of 2009.

I'm hoping it will be a helpful resource for preachers, worship planners, and others interested in biblical themes of peace and justice.