Monday, June 25, 2012

The Art of Limitations

Before he said, "We will sell no wine before its time," Orson Welles (creator of some of the most acclaimed stage, radio, and movie productions of all time) said this:
quotes by Orson Welles

“The absence of limitations is the enemy of art.” 

(quoted in The Movie Business by 
Jason E. Squire, 3rd ed., New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004, p. 54)

This is a word especially for those of us in free worship traditions. We think our freedom from prescribed liturgies and service books as a boon to creativity. But in practice that freedom--that absence of limitations--is very often a creativity-killer.

You can't actually do anything without limitations. So what happens is that we end up employing unhelpful limitations, especially the limitations of "What's the latest thing?" or "What are other people doing?" or, "How did they do it in that YouTube video?" or, "What's the latest tech feature we can use?" or, in fact, "How have we usually done it?"

It's much better to consciously choose and accept your limitations and make a good use of them. So, for instance, if you plan your worship themes using a liturgical calendar (getting beyond Christmas and Easter, to include Advent, Epiphany, Pentecost, and so forth) you will probably be much more creative within those thematic limitations than if you are mostly just trying to come up with themes and series from scratch all the time.

Likewise, there is probably more creative potential in working within the limitations of consciously engaged cultures than in treating cultures as merely optional features. There are neither main dishes nor side dishes apart from cultures.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

"Why switch from Buddhism?"

About my book, I was asked, "Why should Asian Americans bother with Christianity when they have a perfectly beautiful religion in Buddhism?" Part of my reply was, 

"No question that the combo of colonialism + Christianity in Asia got toxic esp. in the 19th century. But there was good too, e.g., Christianity helped end footbinding, which Buddhism (which itself came as a foreign religion to China, from India) had long tolerated. Meanwhile, Jesus' culture was actually rather more Asian (e.g., emphasis on tradition, family, shame/honor, paradox) than western. I suppose one of the main points of the book is to help Asian American Christians see their faith through their own bicultural eyes."

That Buddhism originally came to East Asia and Southeast Asia very much as a missionary religion is generally neglected. Likewise neglected is the very long history of Christianity in places like China, where it can be documented to at least as far back as the seventh century (e.g., via the Nestorian monk Alopen, as described in the Nestorian Stele).

I am all for the western emphasis on freedom of conscience in religion: that each individual and family should have the freedom to weigh and choose its own religious commitments. To say that "People X should be religion Y" is itself more or less a colonial attitude.

But is this not clearly one more example of the need for cultural contextualization--why did my questioner assume that Christian = western in the first place? Well, if Asian North American Christians simply assimilate into western/majority-culture worship forms, who can blame him?