Star Spangled Divas

Sometimes something happens that is so unspeakably weird, but happens so often, that no matter how weird it might be, it becomes normal.  Like people who wear sunglasses at night.  Or people who go on Jerry Springer.

Or when someone publicly sings the Star Spangled Banner.

It’s quite common now to see divas and boy bands and all matter of wannabes all stylizing their way through our National Anthem.  They scoop for the lows, stretch for the highs, interject a few gospel growls, throw an interminably long descant on “freeeee!,” and then add a few unnecessary tags at the end.  (I keep expecting someone to add “Oh baby!” at some point.)  It probably began simply enough; some celebrity vocalist added a simple flourish to the song, is applauded for it, and since then, scores of singers have been trying to outdo it since.

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Art and Censorship

Recently, Christian author & blogger Rachel Held Evans created a little controversy over her newest book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood.  Specifically, LifeWay Christian Resources, a large, conservative Christian book chain, had decided not to carry this book, apparently because she used the word, "vagina." (Note: LifeWay is the same bookstore chain that previously created a stir by banning the popular and well-intentioned movie, "The Blind Side," from their stores.)
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Suspending My Disbelief

When I was a little kid, my brothers and I used to play “Raft.” Raft was a simple game, something we probably made up on a boring, nondescript afternoon. We would all jump on our parents’ king-size bed and pretend that our ship had sank, and we were the lone survivors on a small, inflatable raft. In our minds, we could taste the salt water, feel the waves bob us about, hear the lonely cry of a sea gull in the distance. And then, as always, my older brother would quietly announce that he could see sharks in the water. He would explain that the only way the sharks would leave us alone would be if they had some food to eat. And then we would look at one another for one brief, adrenalized moment. And then we would suddenly lunge at one another, frantically throwing each other off the bed.
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The Artist as Beauty Maker

Whenever I speak at conferences or churches about the nature of the arts, I inevitably get bogged down about one third into my presentation.  Some daring soul near the back of the room will raise his or her hand—often a young person or college student—and ask a brutally honest question: “Isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder?”  And that’s when the firestorm begins.

Many intelligent and inspired people far smarter than I have written volumes on the subject of beauty over the centuries.  So to attempt to speak on the subject of beauty is, by definition, to talk over one’s head.  I myself have written briefly about this issue in my previous book, Imagine That, and blogged and spoken on this issue a number of times.  Which is to say that I attempt to speak of things great and transcendent.  So these firestorms, when they happen, are often controversial and animated.  Specifically, what gets the dialogue going is the contention that beauty is an objective property (i.e., an intrinsic quality of a given thing) and not a subjective one (i.e., dependent on the capricious whims of the person who experiences it). In other words, beauty is not dependent on what you think about it.

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The Artist as Storyteller

It happens to everyone, at an early age.  At some point in our wonder-filled Kindergarten experience, we were all handed a piece of paper smothered in dots.  And we were all instructed to carefully draw lines from one dot to another, following the numerical sequence, with the promise that an image would appear.  Thick crayons scrunched in our tiny hands, we all learned how to “connect the dots” and find the hidden pirate or giraffe or pumpkin.  It was like magic.

The ancients knew how to connect the dots too.  The Greeks, the Romans, the Babylonians, the Chinese—they all pondered the night sky and grouped the stars into constellations upon which they tried to derive greater purpose and ultimate significance.  There were figures in the stars that pointed to something greater than themselves—ancient mythos, creation stories, immutable fates and foreboding omens—and although this was more related to superstition than truth, they all understood the concept that they were a part of something larger than themselves.

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Trying To Avoid That Rob Bell Thing.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the evangelical theological constructs that surround me.  I’ve had some really great conversations lately with a number of deep-thinking people, so I end up floating around these things.  Without going into many details, I have begun to recognize more and more the differences between what I believe and experience, and the conceptual models that attempt to explain what it is I believe and experience.

For example, what do I really believe about me, in contrast to what do I see as the conceptual models that attempt to explain me?

The “Four Spiritual Laws” tries to explain me this way: God loves me, but because of my sin, I had separated myself from that love.  I am fundamentally a sinner, separating me from Him with an unfathomable gulf which cannot be bridged by my own efforts.

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Rethinking Christina Aguilera and the Star Spangled Banner

Wow.  It seems like everyone these days has an opinion on Christina Aguilera and her now infamous rendition of the National Anthem. Radio talk jocks and internet bloggers, patriots and politicos, grandpas and pre-teens, professional athletes and armchair quarterbacks—there is no lack of spin coming from all directions.

Now, if you're looking for a blog slamming Aguilera for her performance, this ain't it.  It is true that I am neither a fan of pop divas (except maybe for Aretha Franklin), nor of the lifestyles they seemingly represent. I do know that Aguilera is an extremely talented vocalist (her performance on Herbie Hancock's album, Possibilities, still knocks my socks off).  But if you know me or read my blog, you know that I will occasionally rant against culture but purposefully not rant against people.

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"That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."

One of the best things about Christmas—and this is just my personal opinion—is being able to play the music of Vince Guaraldi.  For those who don’t know, Guaraldi is the iconic jazz pianist and composer whose work flavors “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”  In fact, the music is so integral to the story that one cannot hear his music without thinking of Snoopy dancing his weird little happy dance.

Over the month of December, I’ve been sneaking in different Guaraldi interpretations into every gig—at a solo piano restaurant gig, the corporate Christmas party I gigged last week with my trio, the recent TV appearance I did with Bob Kilpatrick, and even Christmas Eve services at my church.  I love the quirky chord changes and sparse voicings and joyous feel to the music.  And I also love how children’s faces light up when I begin the “Linus and Lucy” theme.  His music has been covered by several notable artists, including George Winston, David Benoit, and my friend and jazz recording artist, Jim Martinez.

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Art and the 10,000 Hour Rule

Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book a few years ago called, Outliers: The Story of Success, which is, in his words, about “men and women who, for one reason or another, are so accomplished and so extraordinary and so outside of ordinary experience that they are as puzzling to the rest of us as a cold day in August.”  In the book, he looks at a wide variety of people and occupations, from airline pilots to entrepreneurs to hockey players to software engineers, and identifies and examines the attributes of success.  Beyond talent and intelligence and ability, many of the characteristics of success include things largely outside of our control, things like “culture and community and family and generation.”
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Rethinking "Celebrity"

I mentioned in a previous blog about the pursuit of fame and fortune that drove me in my younger days.  In what I now refer to as “my rock and roll dream,” the long-term plan was to work as an engineer by day and a musician by night, writing and recording my material while getting exposure and experience in the local club scene.  It would only be a matter of time until I would record the killer demo, move down to LA, recruit some monster musicians, and launch my career.  From there, it would simply be a short limo trip to fame and fortune.

Of course, that didn’t happen, for a lot of reasons—talent, marketability, maturity, circumstance, and the Small Still Voice that invited me into a better way of life.

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About
A rock musician turned rocket engineer turned Christian artist, MANUEL LUZ is a creative arts pastor, working musician, and author. His new book, Imagine That: Discovering Your Unique Role as a Christian Artist, is released by Moody Publishers.


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