The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr


Exploring Spiritual Formation and Creativity

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I recently found out why I dislike poets. It is for their tendency to abstract the concrete – to love the mystery more than knowledge. I am not an abstraction. I am knowable at least to the degree of someone needing to know me before choosing to love me or revile me. How do I know? I have experienced both. I am, we all are, knowable to degrees. We have a part in this. We are knowable to the degree with which we share ourselves with others. We are knowable to the degree with which we engage with curiosity about the other.

I’m going to get deep quick, and then return. For the depths first. If I, a mere mortal, am knowable, so, too must the divine mortal Christ Jesus be. Again, to degrees. To the degree to which He has been revealed to us in the writings of the New Testament (and Old, no doubt); to the degree to which we seek Him; to the degree to which we begin to find, interact, and resonate with Him. In knowing the fleshy Christ, we can come to know the Father who is in him, in a fundamentally different way than by any other medium (be it a law or prophet, the material world, or myth or legend). This is not at all abstract. This is human. This is as concrete as stubbing one’s toe with the pain, the yell, the emotion, and the consequence of such an action. Or perhaps the look of loving parents upon their newborn child with all the anticipation, wonder, and new responsibility.

This is after all fundamentally relational. Jesus Christ is said to be the concrete embodiment of the Father. No need for abstraction. Expression yes - and maybe representative expressions such as a journalistic essay, or a family portrait fail to capture the reality of the concrete nature of such things. But abstraction lifts us out of ourselves into mystery, when what is required is not a reveling in unknowing, but a grounding in the knowledge of love. Which brings us back to Christ.

The Return

The tendency in the arts to lean into the abstract takes for granted the grounded concreteness of the craft the artist is using. Tap dancing, for example, can bring to life a wonderful world of music and movement. Something the mind could not have conceived of before. A world in which everyone is tap dancing is fundamentally abstract. It is not normative. Yet the mechanism by which all this happen, the hitting of the ground with our feet, goes as far back as a baby’s first jump, or a toddler’s first fit in which they somehow intuitively learn that stomping their feet is a way to express anger or frustration.

I’m not saying any of this to deny the power of the arts. In fact, there are many places in which the expression of the arts is what opens the door of the heart to accept a current or potential reality. Watching the Foo Fighter’s performance of “My Hero” with Shane Hawkins allows me to experience the grief of losing my father in a different way than any other thing. At this point in my life I’m almost guaranteed to cry if I watch that video.

What I am saying is that there is a difference between art that draws us into abstraction and art that expresses a reality that is ultimately concrete.

I’m going to come at this another way, and then return. Simon Sinek, in his book, Leaders Eat Last, discusses the idea of abstraction from a biological and behavioral lens. The book presents a vision of leadership that is steeped in service. He proposes that only if leaders take on this role, creating a circle of safety for those in their care, can true thriving happen. He discusses the differences between the chemical releases of dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, laying out a spectrum of self-centeredness to communal trust, even love. One of the things Sinek points out as a detriment to this kind of leadership is abstraction. When people become numbers the actual relationship – the thing that connects us as people and is concrete – doesn’t exist anymore. Mass layoffs, for example, are considered as an accounting fix. While the impact such moves have on the real people they affect is considered less. It is specifically the abstraction of people into numbers that prevents trust, poisons corporate culture, and keeps people in a self-protective state.

In the coaching world there are tools that encourage the client to use metaphor for the sake of jogging their thinking. If the client can’t get to what they are trying to express directly playing with metaphor may be a way to get there. Of course, metaphor is an abstraction of reality. However, the abstraction is not the point, it is the tool. And maybe that’s my greatest concern.

We, as humans, have a great ability to become wrapped up in ideas. Ultimately our lives are living witnesses to the ideas we believe to be true – and their interaction with the world around us. Part of our lives is spent discovering how our ideas line up with what we observe. We are often testing out our ideas and looking for feedback – what worked, what didn’t, and why? In such a context, wouldn’t we want to have the most concrete feedback loop possible?

Which brings me back to poetry. In the company of poets, and many artists, I find the abstraction – that is their art and artwork – to be what becomes the center of attention. This is natural as those in the field can become immersed in their craft’s world. It is natural in mixed company of artists and those who consider themselves non-artists, as the artist inspires a kind of wonder from those who admire the skill, craft, and what comes out of the artist. The more concrete reality, though, is that artists are people. They have the same challenges most people do – with family, relationships, work, and life in general – and maybe a few extra because of this quirky thing that they seem to be able to do that few others can.

For the artist to be seen as something more or less than a person – perhaps a representative of their body of work – is to force them into an abstraction. They are no longer a person if their work takes center in your mind. They are no longer a person if how you feel about their work is more prominent than how you feel about them. Of course, many of us will never have the opportunity to get to know the artists whose work affects us. The distance between us and them prevents that. Still, it is imperative to remember that they are people, lest we all fall into an abstraction that prevents the kind of humanity that is required for thriving relationships.

Speaking personally, I have a few friends who I can count on to call me out of any abstraction I myself might land in. They remind me that I am human and that I have responsibilities. These are not to my craft, or the abstraction of any particular community, but rather to my person, and the people who I am connected to by name. I can only imagine what my life might be like if these key individuals were not there. These relationships are as concrete as life gets for me.

Which brings me back to Christ. If the creator of the universe saw fit to reveal Himself in the most concrete of ways – as a person, in history, with a body – wouldn’t that be enough? That is, wouldn’t that concrete revelation be enough for us to chew on for the rest of our lives? It is the offering of a personal relationship after all, and growing in relationship takes time in the best of cases, let alone a divine one. The mystery will always be there, as with any relationship, and especially this one. But the things that we can rely on, that bring us towards trust, the convergence of the divine with physical reality, and the entrusting our lives (literally and figuratively) to the world Jesus Christ says is real, come in the concrete. And that itself is a gift worth holding on to.

The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Andrew Nemr, a critically acclaimed tap dance artist, explores the intersection of creativity and spiritual formation.
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