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Hutchmoot: Composed Experience August 16, 2010

Posted by markgeil in Philosophical musings, Writing.

[This is the fourth installment of my recap of Hutchmoot 2010]

Saturday promised to be a memorable day. We were set to be at the church all day, and indeed, I soaked it all in from early morning until well past midnight. This, I gather, was the day in which the organizers had some nebulous concept of what might happen, and they had done an excellent job lining up speakers and themes, but I don’t know that any one of them quite knew how the day would unfold. I can’t imagine any of them were disappointed. In retrospect, Friday prepared us, Sunday let us catch our breath and reflect, and the day in between was a saga in which heads were filled and hearts were… well, now I’m struggling for a word. Some were encouraged, but that’s not profound enough. Some seemed to be rent and put back together. Let’s call mine illuminated.

The morning meal was called “Cold Breakfast” on the schedule, which sounded marginal to me, so I ate a Pop Tart on the way over. I should have known the spread would be fabulous, rivaling the genuine continental breakfasts I’ve had in Europe. Devotions followed in the sanctuary, a first reminder of the joy of liturgy and responsive readings for this Presbyterian-cum-Southern Baptist. There was already a familiarity present, since so many had met on Friday, and I felt like I was among friends.

The first session I attended was called “The Immersed Imagination”, and was led by Andrew Peterson and Ron Block, speaking about George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis. After Peterson opened with a bit of context and a caveat about some of G-Mac’s beliefs, he and Block each read an essay he had written on the topic. I would have thought this would be a horrible mode of presentation, but it was strangely engaging. I wrote a page of notes in my slow, messy broken-hand script, and here are a few things I learned:

Apparently (I’ve never read more than a page of his writing), MacDonald’s fiction was meandering and child-like, the product of an excessive and exuberant imagination. Lewis counts him as his major influence. In the two of them, storytelling becomes a way to help us “see” with the fresh perspective of a child. It’s like snapping a photo of something versus drawing a picture. Each captures the same object, but they explain it differently. Many times, the picture is better than the photo, because it couples an object of observation with an interpretation of an observer. Both are God’s handiwork, so I think the picture lets us see not only an object but also another glimpse of God.

Block mentioned that in his own Bible study he often discovers truths that have already been placed in his heart through the fiction of authors like Lewis and MacDonald. What a wonderful and frightening possibility! The author can take the truth of God’s word and try to convey it in a story. The reader then captures a hint of the truth, which prepares him to receive the real deal from the Word. There is a profound place in God’s plan for storytelling.

Two more quotes from the session that meant a lot to me:

                “The few real moments of clarity in my life happened when the child in me was awakened.”

                “Don’t let a theological superstructure obscure the Word. Read it like you’ve never read it before. Approach it as a child.”

Peterson and Block had both brought guitars to the session. I found out later they were really there as security blankets in case they ran out of things to say. It is bittersweet that they did not, as I would have quite enjoyed a duet. As it was, I was satisfied just listening to the inimitable Mr. Block tune up.

My next session was “Perfected in Weakness”, featuring Pete Peterson, Travis Prinzi, and S.D. Smith. S.D. is really Sam, the first person I met at Hutchmoot. These gentlemen also read essays pontificating on Walter Wangerin Jr. and J.R.R. Tolkien. There was much talk of the antihero in story, and the observation that the best authors allow their characters to have flaws, since so many of our best moments come when God works in our weakness. Sam started by speaking of Samwise Gamgee, a character with no status who is infinitely important in accomplishing a task only he could do. Another Tolkien story tells of a character unknowingly gifted by an outside source and explores how the character would use the gift. Isn’t that our life in Christ?

Prinzi spoke eloquently of the reality of the fall, and how too often we (as writers and readers and even as parents) try to soften the fall too much. We know there is supernatural terror in the world, but we pretend it doesn’t exist. This, Peterson added, is another purpose of story. We can only understand abstract ideas through firsthand experience or through story. There are things we must understand but do not wish to experience; for these, story is vital. Peterson evoked the parables of Christ and books like Wangerin’s The Book of the Dun Cow in saying, “We don’t tell stories to communicate fact. We tell stories to communicate truth that we cannot otherwise explain.”

Peterson, through tears, read a final scene from Saint Julian. I promised myself to make more time to read.

Prinzi also gave me some surprising insight about the grand climax of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, something I had never thought of before. You’ll have to ask me about it sometime.

I missed two parallel sessions featuring Eric Peters, Jason Gray, Jonathan Roger, and Russ Ramsey. As expected, I heard great things.

Lunch was upon us, and with it more Hutchmeets and more good food. The afternoon brought the whole group back together for two panel discussions, the first with authors and the second with songwriters. I know I’ve used the word “story” over and over, but the whole weekend I understood quite naturally that the term applies as well to a novel as to a song. And by that I don’t mean to limit this to story-songs, in which a pony named Wildfire busts down its stall. No, like prose, songs of all sorts can tell a tale, even if they don’t even have lyrics.

The Story panel assembled authors, pastors, and even a filmmaker to help me further understand why I write and teach. The song panel gathered eight musicians to help me further understand why I like music so much. Here are a few things I learned:

The purpose of preaching is not to convey information but to make an impression. By extension, a good song was likened to simple mathematics. (NOW they were really speaking my language!) If the equation is 2 + 2 = 4, the song should not simply tell us “4”. It should tell us “2 + 2”, leaving us to conclude, “4”. The authors quoted C.S. Lewis (often), who said that story can “steal past those watchful dragons,” the baggage of fact and inhibition and prejudices that prevent us from understanding. All three of those points support one another.

The songwriters spoke some of craft, and I was riveted. Someone (I wish I could remember who) spoke of a childhood trip on a glass-bottom boat. He was mesmerized by this new undersea world, awakened to a greater reality, until a lady nearby dropped her sunglasses onto the glass, breaking the child’s other-worldly spell. Songwriters “break the spell” when they draw attention to themselves. Another musician concurred, saying, “Just because I can write a song in 7-8 time doesn’t mean I should.” This is obviously true of writing as well. Just because I know a fancy word doesn’t mean I should seek to shoehorn it into a sentence. (I try very hard not to do that. Honest.)

By this point in the day I noticed I was no longer star-struck by any of these distinguished presenters. Such is their humility and rapport. During the break between panels I stepped outside to call home, and noticed Andy Gullahorn pushing his kids on a swing at the playground right next to where my car was parked. The fact that my car contained a couple of his CDs, with songs I know by heart, no longer felt the least bit odd.

It was during that call home that I learned my youngest daughter was headed to the urgent care center for a lingering case of sharp abdominal pains. After the second panel, I got word that she’d been sent to the emergency room for fear of appendicitis. All this talk of story became jolted by reality, and I kept close tabs on her condition. The trip home would be about 3 hours and 15 minutes, so I didn’t exactly know if I should leave right away or wait and see. Amy did a wonderful job taking care of Rebekah and gave me peace through my anxiety and guilt.

I was late to dinner and the only available seats were at a table being reserved for some similarly late-arriving guests. My new friend Whit, the Cruise Director for the weekend, kindly asked if I might be willing to move later because they might need those seats for the likes of Michael Card or Phil Keaggy. Dude, for them I would skip dinner and just sit in a corner and stare if needed! Turned out I got to stay, and I got to share dinner with Don and Lori Chaffer. If you know them as Waterdeep, you either get cool points or you were at Hutchmoot and knew that already.

I ate quickly and followed the news from home, where a blood test result necessitated a CAT scan. I got to talk to Rebekah, who sounded okay and was apparently braver than her mother when they inserted the IV. I kept checking in with Amy at the hospital and Sarah at home until Amy’s phone ran out of minutes!

Back in Nashville, Walt Wangerin, Jr. was introduced. There could not have been a better talk to tie together all the brightly colored threads of insight we had discovered that day. Even with my divided attention and constant prayers for Rebekah, I managed to understand as he spoke of art as “composed experience”. Although the artist might have finished creating it, art is not fully realized until it is experienced. Art seeks a recipient. I think that’s what AP meant in that line about being alone in Many Roads.

Wangerin took to teaching, and revealed the Old English word for art: scop, pronounced like “shop”. From that word we get shape. Artists are shapers. Again, what a wonderful and frightening thought!

I ducked out a few times to get calls from home. CAT scan was negative. One more blood test was ordered, and then the plan was to send Rebekah home. Relief. Thanksgiving.

Wangerin concluded with an entrancing story about a broken man in prison and the power of perhaps the greatest short story ever uttered to finally reach him. I won’t try to retell it, because I won’t do it justice. I’m told you can read a version in his Advent Meditations. With his final, acutely motivational words, Wangerin took a seat, almost mid-sentence. The room was utterly silent.

A moment passed, perhaps two. We convinced ourselves that, indeed, the talk did have to come to an end. We applauded with esteem and thanks and a hint of awe. If you’ve read the Dun Cow, you’ll appreciate the gift Walt was given to thank him for his address. What to give someone to thank him for speaking about art at a conference full of artists talking about art? A plaque? Perish the thought! Instead, Wangerin was given a commissioned painting of Chauntecleer the rooster perched on the back of Mundo Cani dog.

Looks like I can’t capture all of Saturday in one already over-long post. There was still one more concert that night, and Sunday after that. So, a bit more to come.



1. Susan Mansfield - August 16, 2010

What was ‘Prinzi’s’ insight about the climax of LOTR?

2. markgeil - August 18, 2010

It was a point about even Frodo being a flawed hero, ultimately unwilling to dispose of the ring. In the end, it was Gollum’s presence, not Gollum himself, that caused the ring to be destroyed, and Gollum was only present because of an act of forgiveness years before when he was allowed to live. So, the victory over evil was not a direct act of any man, but an act of forgiveness.

3. Pete Peterson - August 18, 2010

Thanks for these posts, Mark. So glad you enjoyed the weekend.

4. Susan Mansfield - August 22, 2010

Thanks for sharing 🙂

5. Hutchmoot Hub (A Collection Of All ‘moot-related Blogposts, Websites, Etc.) | S.D. Smith - August 26, 2010

[…] Hutchmoot: Composed Experience, from Mark Geil […]

6. The Rabbit Room - August 26, 2010

[…] Hutchmoot: Composed Experience, from Mark Geil […]

7. Ron Block - August 27, 2010

Thanks for these posts – I really enjoyed reading.

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