By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service
BOULDER, COLORADO (ANS — October 29, 2017) — While browsing through the used poetry selection at the Innisfree Poetry Bookstore & Café in Boulder, Colorado  I came across a book written by the priest, Charles M. Murphy, entitled Wallace Steven: A Spiritual Poet in a Secular Age . As I opened up the book I was surprised to see that it was signed and inscribed by the author. The inscription read, “For Brian, with admiration of your pursuit of a spiritual life in this secular age, Charles Murphy (30 III 98).” And though inscribed almost ten year ago, I felt the book was signed for me, having two of my poems recently published in The Penwood Review (Volume 21, Number 2, Fall 2017: ISSN 1092-5155). I bought the book, feeling as though there was something I was to glean from its pages; time will tell.
As the name of the book suggests, Wallace Steven: A Spiritual Poet in a Secular Age is a work that tackles the poetry of Stevens by looking at the underlining quest for spiritual solace and awareness in his poetry. And though there are many scholars who doubt Stevens was a Christian, Murphy does a fine job linking spirituality to his work, leading to a possible conversion in Steven’s old age .
But a broader question the book raises concerns how spiritual people — Christians in particular — are to interact within the secular world. And other than the Bible (which is primary), how are we to find Christ in culture?
I suggest the metaphor of TILT:
The tilt of the head is a signal — a sign that indicates interest, giving awareness. It is a position of inquisitiveness or an indication of uncertainty. Tilting a head conveys that the person is observing and interpreting. In some societies, a head tilt is a form of submission and humility. By exposing the neck, the person is giving someone his or her life. Even animals — dogs most notably– tilt heads.
The definition for tilt is simple. The word means a “slopping position or movement.” The verb form is “to cause to move into a sloping position.” As you can surmise, both definitions require movement, from one position to another. In the verb case, someone who tilts his or her head moves it from an upright position to an offset position.
The body language conveyed by an offset head indicates interest, observation, understanding. And figuratively, an offset head shows a movement in consideration, empathy, an agreement or disagreement. In short, the person who tilts his or her head is trying to understand the object before them, a deepened curiosity.
To a large extent all people are head-tilters. After pondering, pressing for insight, and discussing a host of stuff — we all, at some point in our life, tilt our head, seeking a new perspective, a fresh vision of what we think, see, or believe, asking “What’s all this about?”
If we don’t tilt our head physically, we sure do it metaphorically: we ask, seek, search, and contemplate. The head tilt is part of the human condition. The head tilt is connected to a heart-tilt, bridging our mind to our emotions, a means by which we conjoin our brain to our body, showcasing the common characteristic of interest and inquiry about this thing called life. I’m a self-confessed head tilter.
Here’s how I suggest you TILT your head, seeking the spiritual in a secular age, finding Christ in culture
T–Time. When acclimating to cultural events—be it art, music, architecture, dance, poetry, drama, lectures, speeches, sculpture, etc.—time is of the essence. First, you must take the time out of your schedule to attend an event. Second, you’ll need to take the time needed to enjoy and learn about the object or event your viewing or listening to. But don’t feel you need to use up countless of hours. Take the time needed let the work infuse your senses, allowing it to say what it needs to say, whether you agree with it or not. If it’s fifteen minutes, fine. If it’s four hours, so be it. But you won’t be a cultural participant if you don’t carve out time to see cultural events. Check local listing for gallery openings, poetry readings, book signings, lectures, education demonstrations, and concerts. Ensure you know the outlets that will afford you inlets to the cultural world.
I make it a practice to check our local newspaper and the alternative press — magazines and printed material produced in the community. Furthermore, with today’s technology, event listings are as close as a click of the finger-through Apps, websites, and various online portals. Most states, cities, counties — and countries, for that matter—have tourism departments that highlight events in a particular region. Look for them
I–Investigate. Once you have taken the time to participate in cultural events, investigate the artist or event more. Familiarize yourself with their worldview, their likes, and philosophy of life. Before the Internet, one had to go to the library to investigate. Now with the library in your pocket or purse via a phone, one need not take too much extra time to investigate the person, place, or position of a cultural event. Investigation involves a formal inquiry, a discovery and examination. Google defines the verb form of the word as to “make inquires as to the character, activities, or background of (someone) .” In short, to investigate means to educate yourself about what you’re embarking on. In a richer way, investigating is about seeking wonder. As Thomas Aquinas reminds us, “Wonder is the desire of knowledge.” I find that I like to put a face to the composition or artwork, the architectural design, wondering about its maker. And wonder brings me closer to God’s world.
Concerning research, as any teacher or library will suggest, there are basic steps to the research process. Here’s one given by the University of Missouri-Kansas City :
—Choose a topic (or in our case, a cultural event).
–Create a research strategy (this involves formulating questions, identifying ideas, and seek to find answers).
–Find information (web, emails, discussion, interviews, etc.)
–Evaluation information (we’ll get to this later in the book).
Now I know not all people or events have information online. If they don’t, then ask around. Go to the library to see if something is written. Talk to people familiar with the topic to get more information. The bottom line is to investigate. And through investigation you’ll discover, educate, and become more knowledgeable, all leading to a pursuit of truth.
L—Listen. Here’s where it gets interesting. Once you carved out the time and investigated the cultural event, listen to those around you—the curator, your friend, the guide, and the person standing in line, anyone — about the event. Listening is part of learning; and learning helps us discover truth — if it’s there to be found.
Here are few good rules of thumb when listening. First, be respectful and kind, even if you don’t agree with the person or event. Second, check your expectations at the door; make sure you listen before you leave the event or lampoon the event. Third, evaluate what you heard or saw in light of the Bible.
And for some practical listening advice:
–-Listen and then ask questions
–Listen before you judge or come to firm conclusions.
–Listen and then clarify points.
–Listen and then interpret what you hear.
–Listen before you challenge or interrupt.
Now if the cultural event doesn’t verbally talk — like an art exhibit or ballet dance — something more abstract, then listening is still important. Here are some ideas on how to approach art, listening to its medium:
–Form—what does the artwork look like? Does it use shapes, textures, and figures? What medium is used? Canvas? Wood? Sculpture? Dance? Music?
–Balance—is there balance in the composition, or is it offset?
–Color—are the colors bright, subdued, pastel, plain, etc.
–Symmetry—is there perspective? Is the work flat or textured?
–Subject—what is the paining or sculpture of? If abstract, what might the feeling or experience of the painter be?
–Name—what is the name of the piece? Why is it called
Or you might want to approach art as Thomas Aquinas suggests. For Aquinas, the appreciation of art had four properties:
–Actuality—that which is rooted in being, form, and action. Does the artwork have action or being?
–Proportion—this includes harmony and symmetry. His the work harmonious and symmetrical?
–Radiance—this is what makes the work standout, its unique factors or that which emanates from the object.
–Integrity—this is the wholeness of the object. Is the work integral and complete?
If these suggestions don’t work for you, then turn to Professor Edmund Feldman, who, in 1971, came up with four steps of art appreciation. They include:
–Description: what is seen in the work?
–Analysis: what relationships exist with what is seen?
–Interpretation: what is the content or meaning of what is seen?
–Judgment: what is your evaluation of the work?
Another understanding is that proposed by John Walford, Christian art historian and former professor at Wheaton College. He takes art beyond a simple definition and applies it to larger themes, including: spirituality, the self, nature, and the city . In each of these, he widens the notion of what art is and applies it to our beliefs, our understanding of humanity, how we view nature, and our relationship to technology and the city.
And if you don’t like any of these listening devices, then here’s how art educator and historian, Dr. Terry Barrett, summarizes it: “subject matter + medium + form + context = meaning .”
My point is that there’s lots of ways to listen to something that doesn’t make auditory noises—verbally or musically; we still must listen. The outcome maybe be more complex than “listening” to someone speak, but listening engenders and attitude of understanding producing enjoyment and wonder.
T–Tell. After taking the time with the cultural event, investigating it, and listening to it tell others what you learned. Put another way, become a learner by teaching. Telling someone about what you discovered will help you internalize and assess the event more fully. In some parts of the world learning by teaching has become a fine art. A fellow by the name of Jen-Pol Martin has established schools based upon the practice of students teaching lessons in order to learn. I suggest you can use the same practice for cultural events. Tell others what you discovered, whether you liked the event or not. By doing so, you’ll gain a greater awareness into the subject, improving your knowledge and understanding.
Another way to tell someone about a cultural event is to incorporate something from the world of education, Bloom’s Taxonomy. Bloom’s Taxonomy was developed by a man named Benjamin Bloom in 1956. Mr. Bloom sought a means to summarize how we learn — and consequently — how we can share our finding. These include :
–Knowledge “involves the recall of specifics and universals, the recall of methods and processes, or the recall of a pattern, structure, or setting.”
–Comprehension “refers to a type of understanding or apprehension such that the individual knows what is being communicated and can make use of the material or idea being communicated without necessarily relating it to other material or seeing its fullest implications.”
–Application refers to the “use of abstractions in particular and concrete situations.”
–Analysis represents the “breakdown of a communication into its constituent elements or parts such that the relative hierarchy of ideas is made clear and/or the relations between ideas expressed are made explicit.”
–Synthesis involves the “putting together of elements and parts so as to form a whole.”
—Evaluation engenders “judgments about the value of material and methods for given purposes.”
I list these for the sole reason to show you that there are lots to learn from an event, but there are also lots to tell others about. Using Blooms taxonomy, I can tell people about the basic knowledge of what I learned—the facts, if you will. I can also tell people how I applied what I learned to my life or situation. I can tell people about how I analyzed the event or art, making sense of it in relationship to me. Or how I evaluated it in light of the Bible. You get my point: there’s lot to teach others about. And telling others is part of learning.
Head tilt. It’s real. And if you believe Rembrandt van Rijn — the famous Dutch painter—Jesus may have tilted His head while teaching or praying. In several beautiful paintings, van Rijn shows Jesus tilting his head, eyes fixed, a gaze of love and forbearance. Interesting. Why was Jesus tilting his head in Rembrandt’s paintings? Was he showing compassion? Contemplation? We can only guess.
But what we do know is that Christ tilted His head on the cross. As John 19:30 conveys, Christ bowed His head—a type of tilting, submitting, humbling—and gave over His spirit. What Jesus came to do was almost accomplished. With His death, He fulfilled His Father’s will. But with His resurrection, He accomplished what He came to do: bring new life, a new vision for the world—the Good News! This “theology of the cross” as Martin Luther likes to say, brought power from the pain; hope for the hurting; life for the lost. A new world was birthed.
And we in the various civilizations around the globe are recipients of that world. We call it the Judeo-Christian worldview. It helped craft our character, define our domains, and provide us with a purpose and plan.
In short, a Christian culture was born.
And though this Christian culture has wavered the past few decades, we can’t escape the fact that we inherited something grand: cathedrals and hospitals, literature and music, paintings and poems, all dot our landscape like flowers in a field.
The question I ask: can we see Christ in the midst of this fading Christian culture? I submit to you we can. We just need the eyes to experience and the heart to hear that Christ is alive and well in the most unexpected places — our culture. Like basic inductive Bible study tools, we need to observe our culture, interpret it through the lens of Christ, and apply it to our lives, learning to see as a spiritual person in a secular age.
So next time you see a person tilt his or her head in front of a painting, thank God — and tilt your head with them.
- Innisfree is one of three poetry-only bookstores in the nation: https://innisfreepoetry.com/
- Many have doubted this conversion, including Stevens daughter.
- Walford, John, Great Themes in Art (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, Prentice Hall, INC, 2002. Pages 13-14).
- Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (Handbook One, pp. 201-207)
Photo captions: Wallace Stevens: A Spiritual Poet in a Secular Age by Charles M. Murphy. 2) Head tilt at a local gallery. 3) The Penwood Review. 4) Dog head tilt. 5) Crucifixion, Rembrandt. 6) Brian Nixon.
About the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, artist, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA), Veritas Evangelical Seminary (MA), and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon
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