Hello, class!

Please find a seat, get out a piece of paper and a pen, and settle in. Welcome to the first day of a new school year.

That’s what it feels like for me, anyway, as the curtain goes up on a new version of Looking Closer.

Some of you may be longtime readers. Some of you may be newcomers. Whoever you are, let me start off by making one thing clear: At Looking Closer, nobody needs to raise a hand in order to make a comment or ask a question. This class is a conversation. I’m looking for fellow explorers, not fans or followers.

That’s why, as you’ve noticed, I’ve arranged our chairs in a circle.

“What are we studying?”

raised handThanks for asking.

We’re a fellowship. We quest to find and lift up all that is beautiful and true and imaginative in the world of art — in movies, music, literature, and more — and to practice discernment, call out mediocrity, and put behind us anything that threatens to waste our time.

We don’t do this because art is an end in itself: There are far too many websites in the world that amount to little more than “I liked this movie!” and “Thumbs down for this!” Those are reactions. 

We’re planning on going farther than that. We’re going to ruminate.

You know what that means, don’t you?

deer_chewing_nom

We’re going to chew on and draw nourishment from the substantial things. Our minds are going to dwell on whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, whatever is excellent or worthy of praise.

Art, deeply considered, teaches us to see more clearly, interpret more wisely, feel more deeply, love more expansively, and live more meaningful lives. That’s what we’re after.

And we’ll practice fearlessness. There’s always a temptation to stick with the entertainment that mirrors back to us what we like, what we agree with. Similarly, there’s another temptation: To avoid the discomfort of art that presents ideas contrary to our own, that upsets us with the sights and sounds of the world’s afflictions and ugliness.

We will resist those temptations.

We will make ourselves vulnerable, because it is only in vulnerability that we can open ourselves to the Truth — and the Truth wants to change us and reconcile us to one another.

We will allow ourselves to engage other artists’ perspectives, as alarming as they might be, because that is an exercise in listening, taking an interest in, and loving our neighbors.

Thus, we’ll be prepared to discover goodness in art from all over the world, and from any worldview.

In a world crowded with consumers who embrace whatever is advertised, and noisy with voices driven by condemnation and fear, I want a community that’s more inclined to boldly go where no audience has gone before in the expectation that we will find beauty and truth in unexpected place. Creativity is a venture that involves faith — a collaboration with mystery — and any artist, whether they’re aware of it or not, can unleash wild truth into the world.

So, as we climb mountains to breathtaking views and descend into dark places to uncover hidden treasure, we will look and listen — and then look and listen closer — willing to be inspired by even those artists who are most different from us.

Excuse me while I catch my breath. I’m getting carried away.

This is Martin Bonner - 1600 eye testAs the host of Looking Closer, I see my job like this:

I’m not a voice of Authority telling you how it is. I’m not the Gandalf on this journey: I’m not here to lecture or declare things. I’m here to invite you to walk alongside me to experience and contemplate things.

I’m a tour guide. It’s my job to point at things up and say “Check this out. Here are some of my thoughts about it. But what do you think?”

On those occasions when I do hold forth, consider it a contribution from a fellow explorer, not a sermon from a pulpit or a verdict from a judge.  Since any response to a work of art is an act of faith — a tentative venture to find an expression for a mysterious undertaking — I’ve embraced this disclaimer from an Over the Rhine song as one of my mantras: “And like all true believers / I am truly skeptical of all that I have said.” Consider that the “P.S.” to anything I publish.

My reviews and lists? You can take them or leave them. They’re just one traveler’s experience, a treasure map that you may find rewarding. And you’re invited to reply with your own reviews and lists. I’ll be posting plenty of other opinions as well, in hopes of stirring up some discussion.

I also mean for Looking Closer’s community to be an oasis from the vast territories of corrosive digital discourse. Keep reading, and I’ll say more about how that works at Looking Closer.

But first — some of you may be wondering:

What qualifies me to be a tour guide through arts and culture?  

Larry_O
My father — Larry Overstreet — teaching at Portland Christian High School in the late 1970s.

Well, I’m learning as I go.

I do come from a family of teachers. My mother has a rare gift for — and a passion for — teaching small children; she loves that above all, and spent many years teaching preschool. My father spent many years teaching at the high school I attended, as did my uncle. Having grown up around educators, I’ve found teachers to be the most influential people in my life — either in the classroom or on the page.

I cherish the classroom experience. It was in the hopes of creating a space for classroom-like discussion of texts, images, and music that I introduced the first version of Looking Closer in the late 1990s. I was surprised by how many people showed up. Some came to tell me I was wrong about everything. Some were fearful Christians who told me I should stay far away from the corrupt, dangerous, and secular world of the arts. Others were not religious — and they told me that the arts were no place for a religious — and thus corrupt, judgmental, and self-righteous — beilever like me.

Nevertheless, I found a community of seekers — people of all kinds of faith who wanted to go searching for beauty and truth together, without dividing the world into “us” versus “them.”

The fact is that I have found art from all over the world, and from all kinds of people, to be rewarding and inspiring to my  faith.

ThruAScrnDarkly_C1-posterMuch of my appreciation for the arts grew from the teachings of some extraordinary high school teachers in Portland, Oregon, and later from instructors at Seattle Pacific University. After I earned my BA in English there, my intention was to go on and put to work what SPU had taught me: I wanted to become a teacher of creative writing and film studies.

And that happened, although in an unconventional way: As I worked a city government job to pay off student loans, I found my first teaching gigs as a writer — specifically, in a decade-long stand as a critic and/or columnist at Christianity Today. Then I became a monthly film blogger for Image. I wrote about film and interviewed filmmakers for PasteAnd I wrote about film-related books for Books and Culture. During those years, I also started blogging at what became Looking Closer.

Those experiences led me to write a memoir about how art has been a guiding light in my life: Through a Screen Darkly. And although it never occurred to me that I was writing a textbook, the volume — published by Regal Books — Through a Screen Darkly took on a life of its own. It has become a resource on movies, creativity, cultural engagement, artistic discernment, and faith, taught in courses at a variety of colleges and universities internationally — from Seattle Pacific to Biola to King’s College in New York. I’m amazed and grateful for that unlikely development.

Auralia's Colors, 2ndPrintingBut even more than teaching, my greatest love is the learning experience of fiction-writing. I’ve written  a four-volume series (a tetralogy, apparently), published by Random House’s WaterBrook Press — it’s called The Auralia Thread, and it begins with Auralia’s Colors.

And there are more stories coming. I may even try some of them out on you here at the new version of Looking Closer. (I haven’t done that before.)

So when I write about my experiences with art, I speak as one in love with the creative process and with the conversation that surrounds it. Every movie I see, every book I read, every song I play on the car stereo, and every conversation with other explorers teaches me more. And then, when I lose myself in the act of making something new, that becomes a learning experience unlike any other.

I’d prefer to do this in-person. 

I’m grateful to have had many wonderful invitations to serve as a visiting teacher (high schools, colleges, churches); as a speaker and workshop leader (conferences, writing retreats); and as a writer-in-residence (Covenant College, 2013). These adventures have introduced me to art-loving learning communities from California to Calgary, San Jose to Santa Fe, Nashville to the Netherlands.

Covenant College speaking in chapel
Don’t worry: I won’t speak from a podium unless you ask me to. Here I am at Covenant College describing a pile of mail from disgruntled readers.

If you’re curious, you can watch my presentation called “How Shall We Then Tell Stories?” from the International Art Movement’s Encounter 10 conference at the Cooper Union Building in New York: It’s available on Vimeo. Proceed with caution.

As a result of my speaking tours, I’ve received a lot of encouragement lately to step out from behind my MacBook and finally become the teacher I originally intended to be. I like that idea. When I write and when I teach, I have that joyful and satisfying sense that says “This is what I love. This is what my DNA was designed to do. This is what my university mentors prepared me to do.”

First, though, I am taking measures to become a better writer and teacher: I’m currently earning my MFA in creative writing at Seattle Pacific University. I’m in good hands. My mentors are two extraordinary writers: Paula Huston and Lauren Winner. I’m also learning from other faculty, including Robert Clark, Scott Cairns, Gina Ochsner, Jeanne Murray Walker, and Gregory Wolfe; from world-renowned guest faculty like Robert Rodriguez, Father Uwem Akpan, Scott Russell Sanders; and others; and from my brilliant company of classmates. If all goes according to plan, I’ll have my MFA in hand in March 2016.

cover photo
SPU’s MFA in Creative Writing. These are the writers you’ll be reading tomorrow. Be afraid.

And then we’ll see if I do, indeed, find an opportunity to serve as an instructor in a community that is excited about film studies, fiction writing, and creative writing about art and culture and faith.

So for now, I spend all my “spare time” — lunch hours and weekends and holidays — teaching as a writer, reviewer, blogger, speaker, and storyteller. My “paycheck” comes in the form of new relationships and the joy of doing what SPU taught me to do. This is the classroom currently available to me, and I don’t want to waste a moment’s opportunity to celebrate, exercise creativity, and chronicle what I learn from art… and from you.

FYI: The Looking Closer archives from 2004 to mid-2015 are being restored here on this new site. Most are already available.

The past was practice.

lookingcloser
What Looking Closer’s homemade blog header looked like 10 years ago.

You can scroll through much of the content that was available on Looking Closer’s previous versions: film reviews, film forums, music reviews, commentaries on faith and art, and considerations of the differences between art, entertainment, and propaganda. I cringe when I read much of that material, but I was learning as I wrote.

It’s a messy archive. The blog has moved around a lot, and it shows. In fact, you may occasionally find evidence that a bunch of comments ended up attached to the wrong posts. That occurred somehow a few years ago. I’ve never heard a good explanation for how that happened, nor have I been able to untangle it.

Whatever. Hopefully I’m better at this than I used to be.

A few quick words about participating in Looking Closer’s community effort:

Keep the Looking Closer Comment Policy in mind.

I offer this site as a place for humble and respectful discussion. Many, if not most, posts at this blog are open for your comments. I value the child-like kind of faith that art can inspire in us, but I’m not a fan of child-ish responses.

As one of my high school teachers said to me and my classmates on the first class of our senior year: “We’re all adults here, and so long as we behave like adults, we can enjoy freedoms here that we have not enjoyed in school before. But if someone insists on behaving immaturely, then they’ll be excused from this classroom and go back to join those who are not yet adults.”

One giant “Thank You!”

Before I close this long speech, I have a heart full of gratitude to express: Thank you to the Looking Closer Specialists — generous readers whose contributions made it possible for me to escape the click-bait-advertising quagmire called the Patheos blog network and dream up a better world for all of us. One of those Specialists is Carl-Eric Tangen — a multi-talented fellow who dropped into my life out of the clear blue and volunteered to design this new site. He has invested so many hours in this project, and he did it as a volunteer out of the astonishing goodness of his heart. I am going to be thanking him in a variety of ways for a long time to come. Even better, I found a kindred spirit and a good friend.

deer_chewing_nom-explosionsAnd so… it begins.

I love this bit from David Dark’s book The Sacredness of Questioning Everything: “C.S. Lewis once observed that while many people use art, only a very few receive it. … We only receive art when we let it call our own lives into question.”

Let’s go to some movies. Play some records. Read some books. Let’s receive some art and invite the possibility of being “transformed by the renewing of our minds.”

It’s October 9, 2015. It’s my birthday. And I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than launch the next journey on this train that I call Looking Closer.

You don’t need no ticket. You just get on board.

Thanks for joining me.

Jeffrey

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