Jesse James DeConto

Articles By This Author

How Some Churches Are Turning Empty Buildings into Artist Spaces

by Jesse James DeConto 07-01-2015
Judson Memorial Church / RNS

Abhay Singh & Friends performs during Arts Wednesdays at Judson Memorial Church. Photo via Judson Memorial Church / RNS

On the north side of Indianapolis, the historic First Presbyterian Church is now the Harrison Center for the Arts. Its owner, the upstart Redeemer Presbyterian Church, is landlord to two dozen artist studios, three apartments, four galleries, an annual music festival, and the Indiana office of VSA, the John F. Kennedy Center’s nationwide arts program for people with disabilities.

Redeemer is among a host of churches that own old buildings and have embraced the arts as a way of enlivening hallowed spaces, breaking down barriers with neighbors, and paying the heating bills.

When We Were the Pre-Party to the Tea Party

by Jesse James DeConto 10-30-2013

When I was seven years old in the mid-‘80s, Mom started taking my brother Marco and me to Grace Bible Baptist Church and School in rural New Hampshire. We’d pass by all these well-attended, high-steepled liberal churches to worship in a squat, utilitarian building hidden on a back road in the woods, with a congregation of 30 or 40 strong: The Moral Majority. U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s recent claim that we’re living in the end times reminds me of those days. We were the pre-party to the Tea Party. There were Ronald Reagan posters in the lobby. We’d listen to sermons about “back masking” and the Satanist propaganda you’d hear if you played rock records backwards. One week, we came back to church every night after school to watch Russell Daughten’s four-part 1970s Rapture movie series, the original Left Behind: Polyester pandemonium.

Diverse Religion Because of Diverse Creation By a Diverse Creator?

by Jesse James DeConto 03-08-2013
Stained glass window depicting the Holy Trinity, jorisvo / Shutterstock.com

Stained glass window depicting the Holy Trinity, jorisvo / Shutterstock.com

I read a lot of Trinitarian theology last semester at Duke Divinity school, most of it trying to discern how believing in a Triune God might affect the way people of different religious faiths relate to one another. The other great Monotheisms, Islam and Judaism, of course reject the Trinity as they reject Jesus as divine. But what if the Christian belief in the Triune God is the very basis on which Christians can accept Jews as Jews, Muslims as Muslims, and atheists as atheists? Different theologians have explored how the Trinity might be a good place to ground a Christian theory of religious pluralism. S. Mark Heim has gone so far as to say that God’s own inner diversity shows God’s intention for a diverse humanity, even including religious diversity. In other words: People might believe in a non-Trinitarian God because they were made by a Trinitarian God. Mind-blowing.

I wasn’t expecting to find resonance in Charles Darwin, whose name has been used in so much anti-religious fervor. But in his 1857 letter to Asa Gray, Darwin wrote about the “principle of divergence” and how “the same spot will support more life if occupied by very diverse forms.” We might not want to make a precise analogy to human society when Darwin concludes that “each new variety or species, when formed will generally take the place of and so exterminate its less well-fitted parent.” 

That line of thinking could easily lead us to euthanasia. But, taken with his observation that diversity fosters life, we might say that co-existence with others forces a species to adapt, and everyone is better for it. Consider the converse of Darwin’s statement: The same spot will support less life if occupied by a unitary form. There is something life-giving – Heim might say “divine” – about difference.

Housework, Hookups, and St. Gregory of Nyssa

by Jesse James DeConto 02-28-2013
Housework, Diego Cervo / Shutterstock.com

Housework, Diego Cervo / Shutterstock.com

This past year, I’ve been working out of my house, something like a stay-at-home dad, what with the after-school hours and school holidays and such. All day, everyday – or at least whenever I get up from my desk to go to the bathroom or get a glass of water or collect the mail – I observe the messes my kids have made, the dirty dishes in the sink (or, more likely, scattered on coffee tables, the dining table or kitchen countertops), the dried mix of toothpaste and spit all over the vanity, the explosion of Legos and Polly Pockets and precious scraps of torn fabric they collect to role-play their fashion-design dreams – hundreds upon hundreds of swatches, all frayed edges and little threads perpetually freeing themselves and covering the carpet, much as dog hair would, except we don’t have a dog because I hate dog hair all over everything, and you can’t hate your daughters’ fashion-design dreams.

What I have discovered, in all this mess, is that I am a selfish, lazy bastard. When I get really fed up, or just need to do something physical, I might vacuum a couple of rooms or clean half a bathroom or straighten up the kitchen or do some little household project like patch a hole in the drywall from when the toilet-paper holder fell out of the wall six months ago. But that Benedictine slogan, ora et labora, “pray and work,” the idea that drudgery points you to God? Forget it. I’ve seen beautiful portrayals of it, like in the film Of Gods and Men, how the monks wash dishes or hoe rows or mend fences without complaint, because taking care of one another is part of their calling. “Let the brethren serve each other so that no one be excused from the work in the kitchen,” states St. Benedict’s Rule. “We all bear an equal burden of servitude under one Lord.”

I don’t doubt that taking care of my family – not just earning money, but hands-dirty domestic sort of care – is part of my vocation. In fact, it’s probably the part of my calling that’s closest to monastic holiness, if I’m honest. It’s just that I find the other parts of my calling: the writing, the making music, the seminary studies – I find all of this a whole lot more interesting than scrubbing the toilet. That is to say, if I’m honest, I think my thoughts and my words and the combination of sounds I create are more important than keeping our home clean – at least, that’s the belief I act on, more often than not. Selfish, lazy bastard. I told you, didn’t I?

Ashes and Hope

by Jesse James DeConto 02-12-2013
Tree in a field, verevkin / Shutterstock.com

Tree in a field, verevkin / Shutterstock.com

Lent is a time when we try to identify with our own weakness, so since we are about to start the Church’s penitent season, it was shocking to read Virgilio Elizondo’s account of how a people generally considered weak on the geopolitical stage – poor Mexicans and Chicanos – do not treat Ash Wednesday as a day of penitence at all.

“For the masses of the people, it has little to do with the beginning of Lent. Lent as a season of self-sacrifice is not really of special interest to the people: the entire year is a time of suffering and abnegation. On Ash Wednesday Mexican-Americans renew their cultic communion with mother earth. For them the earth has always been sacred and they retain a fundamental identity with it. The earth supports and regenerates life; itis life.”

What a beautiful and unexpected connection!

Reading the Bible as a Trickster, Feminist, Patriarchal Dad

by Jesse James DeConto 02-04-2013
KonstantinChristian / Shutterstock.com

Photo: Dad and daughter reading the Bible, KonstantinChristian / Shutterstock.com

I wonder if God reads the Bible. I mean, what we’re trying to do when we read the text is to understand it the way God understands it, right? I grew up in fundamentalist churches where biblical authority derived from the belief that God wrote it. I remember writing a paper at my Baptist college in which I said God “inspired” the authors to write what they had written; my Bible professor corrected me, saying God had inspired the text itself. I know he was just trying to fortify in me the doctrine of inerrancy. In this view, authority lies in God’s breathing of the Word, in what God meant when he wrote it. God speaks; we try to understand.

But what if God reads the Bible? And what if, as feminist Bible scholar Claudia Camp argues, scriptural authority “is always understood in relation to the authority of persons?" (p. 61) In one sense, this conclusion is inescapable. Paul’s second letter to Timothy may give us intra-biblical proof of the Bible’s own “inspiration,” but that’s a kind of circular reasoning, isn’t it? The Bible did not decide for itself what it was. By the time I wrote that college paper, Rodney Clapp’s book A Peculiar People had already opened my eyes to the very human process that gave us the Bible. It did not drop out of the sky like spittle from the mouth of God; the church drew water from the rivers of wisdom, put it in the containers of the old and new testaments, law, prophets, and Gospel, and discarded what the church deemed unnecessary. It was a messy, political process like any collective endeavor.

Art As An Act of Faith

by Jesse James DeConto 01-08-2013
Photo illustration, © Elena Ray / Shutterstock.com

Photo illustration, © Elena Ray / Shutterstock.com

Almost two years ago, I took a titanic risk. If you look at things from an earthbound perspective, what I did is: I took my livelihood, and my children's provision, in my hands alone. I quit my job at The News & Observer, a major, Pulitzer-prize-winning newspaper where I earned a decent salary and reached 150,000 to 200,000 readers on any given day. 

The decision was a long time coming — my whole adult life, really. Before I ever started my first newspaper job in 2000, I’d wanted to help people explore deeper things than just tax policy, or crime, or environmental regulation. These just skim the surface of who we are as humans: why we share or hoard, why we hurt or protect one another, what we owe to Mother Earth.

What I found as a newspaper reporter was that I had no choice but to skim the surface of things. There’s not enough space to go deeper, but, more importantly, deeper takes you into hypothesis, not fact — and hypothesis is a leap of faith. What you find when you go deeper depends a lot on the gear you’re wearing when you dive. I’m cloaked in Bible stories and Christian tradition, and therefore I live in hope that there’s a Creator and that this God is working quietly to heal the world.

I read recently in Psalm 27: 

“The Lord is my light and my salvation —
 whom shall I fear?
 The Lord is the stronghold of my life —
of whom shall I be afraid?”

A Kinder, Gentler, More Radical Monotheism?

by Jesse James DeConto 11-30-2012
Cross image, © Carsten Medom Madsen  / Shutterstock.com

Cross image, © Carsten Medom Madsen / Shutterstock.com

Radical monotheism. It sounds like a frightening term, when there are fundamentalist Christians and Muslims around the world and here inside our own borders, religious folk who want to turn our nation-states into theocracies under gods crafted according to their own images. When we think of radical monotheism, we hear, “My god is bigger than your god. No, wait: Your god’s a fake!”

But theologian H. Richard Niebuhr proposed a kinder, gentler, more generous idea of radical monotheism. He was writing between the Korean and Vietnam wars, as the clash between two “social gods” — capitalism and Marxism — bloodied the globe:

The Naked Artist: Narcissism or Self-Giving Love?

by Jesse James DeConto 11-27-2012
Photo: Hands playing piano, © silver-john / Shutterstock.com

Photo: Hands playing piano, © silver-john / Shutterstock.com

How is it possible that the creative life can feel simultaneously self-giving and narcissistic? On the one hand, the artist, or musician, or writer has a gift that not everyone has. And because paintings and songs and books give other people great joy – and might even change their lives — those gifts must be shared. But that means the artist herself must be shared, and that’s the problem.

For the artist, self-expression is unavoidable – it is part of the job description. As a songwriter, my raw material is the world as I observe it. That’s all I’ve got. The most realistic painter or sculptor still has to rely on his own vision. Even as a journalist, I have to draw upon my five senses, my own mind and my own experiences. Even as I tell someone else’s story, it is in part my story. I can’t tell your story without filtering it through my story; it’s how we make sense of new information. I’m only human, after all.

George Harrison: From 'Taxman' to 'I Me Mine'

by Jesse James DeConto 11-20-2012
The taxman, © maximma / Shutterstock.com

The taxman, © maximma / Shutterstock.com

Winston Churchill famously said, “Show me a young Conservative and I’ll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old Liberal and I’ll show you someone with no brains.”

Churchill was out of power by the time his countrymen, George Harrison and the Beatles, released “Taxman” on their Revolver album in 1966. New Prime Minister Harold Wilson had introduced a 95-percent supertax on the wealthiest Brits, including the Beatles. Harrison’s song was and remains a perfect Right-wing caricature of the Left. I can almost hear Bill O’Reilly singing an attack on President Obama’s plan to “ask the wealthiest Americans to pay a little more.”

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