The Good News About Bad Art

Ancient Testimony: Romans 12:2

August 12, 2012

by Rev. Micah Bucey
Minister of the Arts

Just in case you begin to wonder over the next few minutes, no, it doesn’t escape me that I’m attempting the presentation of a sermon that celebrates failure, while simultaneously hoping that that same sermon succeeds. It seems I’m just one in a long line of preachers who preach what they do not practice, and I wouldn’t want to upset that proud tradition. So here goes:

Last week, we invited several of our Bailout Theater artists to come into our space on a Sunday morning, so we might explore the five pillars that sustain our arts programming here at Judson. We experienced the sometimes irreverent, sometimes raw, sometimes under-rehearsed, always interesting artistic offerings and attempted to find theology in what they were singing, saying, and dancing.

But there’s one more pillar that we didn’t overtly explore in depth last week, though it hovered around the edges throughout the entire service. This pillar is that of “Failure,” and this one little word is a huge part of our arts experiences here, as well as some of our worship experiences. I like to think of these experiences as continuing attempts at striking a balance between manufactured success and authentic failure.

So, something amazing happened to me following last week’s service. We had eaten together. We had laughed together. We had sat for what seemed like just a smidge too long together. And we were all eager to have some cake for Jane’s birthday and continue with our day. But while everyone else was enjoying that cake, I made a new acquaintance. A young woman waited patiently to speak to me and when I finally turned to her, she changed my life.

It started innocently enough. This woman asked if she could ask me a question. I was still on a post-worship high, so I eagerly invited it. She began: “You said at the beginning of the service that this was an experiment. Well, I’m visiting from another church where my pastor told me that I would really enjoy the services at Judson. So now I’m wondering if I should come back to see one when you’re not leading, because I really hated that.”

Now, this was truly an amazing moment. I was floored. I was immediately entranced by how wounded I felt at that precise moment. It was palpable. I could feel my skin hurt, my eyes water, my throat close. We went on to have a perfectly civil conversation, and she made her exit, perhaps unaware of how much she’d transformed me. Sure, it took a good twenty-four hours for that transformation to not feel like sharp daggers repeatedly stabbing and deflating my lungs, but it did eventually happen.

The original impetus for the title of this week’s sermon was a desire to talk about failure at Judson’s playwriting program Magic Time. The Magic Time philosophy encourages playwrights to throw something raw up on our stage. It also encourages audiences to simply embrace the immediacy of what leaps out of a playwright’s head and heart, whether it completely succeeds, which is uncommon, or at least somewhat fails, which is extremely common. Today’s theater audiences have grown accustomed to plays that have been developed to death. But we ask audiences to instead give themselves over to something completely unshaped. We ask the audience to risk failure with us.

But failure is something that is quietly laughed about, especially in this success-driven country we love. The word “Fail,” with a capital “F,” has even entered our popular lexicon, defined by the always informative Urban Dictionary as “the glorious lack of success,” with the following example of the word used in a sentence: “A baseball player swings at a ball and the ball instead hits him in the groin. FAIL!” 1

My sermon idea exploded thanks to my encounter with my young friend last Sunday. I’ve spent the last week poring over her reaction to the worship service and my own reaction to her reaction. See, I realized in the heat of the moment that I was responding to this woman’s response with a split personality. On one side was my artistic/creator personality, which felt bruised by the fact that she was criticizing something I had meant as a love letter to Judson. On the other side was my ministerial/worship leader personality, who knew that I was being faced with an extremely important moment: I had led a worship service which had failed to nourish and engage at least one Judson visitor, if not many others.

Now, at Magic Time, we like to believe that the playwright doesn’t “owe” anything to the audience member. That audience member is coming to be a part of an experience, knowing that that experience will be sketchy and bumpy. But does a worship leader “owe” something to a congregant when that congregant is coming to be spiritually nourished and engaged? If so, I had seriously failed.

I like today’s passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans because I’ve never been able to fully wrap my brain around it. Sometimes I think I get it and other times I think I’m fooling myself. Last week, I spoke of using twelve-step lingo when we speak of God, so that God as we understand God can apply to anything we do, as long as we are being authentic and honest with ourselves and others when we do it. Paul probably meant something else. He meant that we should give up the lower things of the world, knowing that we should instead give ourselves up to holier endeavors. But I’d like to believe that we might be able to appropriate Paul’s words today in regard to failure, criticism, and transformation.

When a Magic Time play fails to immediately move an audience member, I like to believe that that failure still provides a seed of transformation for both the artist and for the audience member. Likewise, the initial burst of criticism that might fall from an unmoved audience member might in actuality be not a deadlock of misunderstanding, but rather the seed of the very moment of catharsis that they think they missed during the performance. In reality, “failure” only exists if there was an intended goal in the first place that was left unachieved. If we agree on not having an intended immediate goal, then there’s actually no danger of failure. Writer Mark O’Donnell, who passed away this week, said of his own modest hopes for connection through creation: “I love writing novels, even if only a few thousand people read them. Here’s my soul, I hope it appeals to your soul.” I wonder if we could think similarly when it comes to a failed worship experience. 2

Surely, we live in a time when we’ve begun to count on being let down. When I was working at a theatrical literary agency, where I assisted two amazing arts advocates, I encountered some unexpected negativity. Indeed, the agency was filled with people who ostensibly loved art, especially theatre. But, I also found that many of these same people, in reality, also pretty much hated going to see shows. I would hear groans all the time. I would hear people complain about every obligation, hoping that what they were being forced to attend that night would be “good” and wouldn’t be “bad.” And this didn’t just happen at the agency; it happened in most theatres I entered. I would hear teenagers, and elderly folk, and everyone in between, acting utterly terrified that the art they were about to see would not live up to their expectations or that it would be “bad.”

I attempted to counter this negativity by finding a church where art is viewed as sacred. But, no matter where I go, I have never escaped these tricky words we all use, these unassuming one-syllable judgments: “Good” and “Bad.” No matter how Christian or Christ-like any of us are, we’ve got this in common. We’ve all got opinions. My mother has a good old Southern saying about opinions that I’ve graciously edited out of this sermon. Feel free to ask me later; it’s a fun one. Regardless, what she says is true: Everyone’s got an opinion. Heck, it isn’t even Christ-like to not have opinions, because even Christ had opinions. And Paul definitely shares opinions throughout his letter to the Romans. But maybe the answer lies in not letting our opinions be the final word.

So here’s what I think people, including myself, do when we approach a piece of art and, perhaps, when we arrive for a Sunday morning worship service: I think we hope that the artist or worship leader will have thought long and hard, will have worried and worked incessantly to create something that will offer a moment so cathartic, so spiritual, so mind-blowing that we will be able to leave feeling as if we have been emptied and refilled, all in seventy-five to, at most, ninety minutes. I think we want to feel safely challenged, mildly educated, and held. But the problem is: Sometimes this moment doesn’t happen. Perhaps even more often than not, we sit through something and realize that the artist or worship leader is failing and we denounce this experience as one of those experimental failures we all sort-of-don’t-want-to-but-still-sort-of-dread.

So what do we do when this happens? What do we do when the show or service we’re attending ends not in manufactured success, but in authentic failure? Well, I think I’ve realized that one thing we might decide to do is to allow that experience, that failure of an experience, to add to the big stew inside our minds that might lead us toward our next personally cathartic moment. Sure, we didn’t get the cathartic moment we wanted at the precise time that we wanted it, but that doesn’t mean we will never have another cathartic moment again. And I’ll just bet the next cathartic moment we have will, in some way, be informed by the failed, non-cathartic moment we just experienced.

This is the transformation that I think possible in moments of failure, whether you are observing the failure or committing the failure. We can choose to let criticism and dismissal be the end of it. We can choose to believe that we’ll have to look elsewhere for something “good” that will give us what we desire. But I fear that this type of thinking might conform us to staying grounded in this world, as Paul fears. Instead, what if we shrugged our shoulders, claimed the effective bits, marveled at the ineffective bits, and decided to allow ourselves to still be transformed? What if we allowed our questions as to why something was “bad” to change us, not so that we end up liking it, but so that we end up appreciating it as something we’ve experienced? Because, no matter whether we liked it or not, it happened. We can try to learn from failures, but the fact that they were failures will always exist, so we might as well think them worthwhile.

The only thing that I don’t “like” is when I don’t believe that people are being honest with me, when I don’t feel like they want me to see the lines they just flubbed or hear the notes they just cracked, when I feel like they don’t want to allow themselves to appear fragile and fallible and generous and dangerous right in front of me. In fact, that kind of authentic failure gives me so much more joy than when I experience merely manufactured success. No matter what we want to achieve, it will never be perfect, so, when it’s not, maybe that’s actually the perfect part. It’s when we’re truest to ourselves.

Are we as humans all involved in the business of manufactured success? Of course. Success can only happen when we manufacture it. And, along these lines, some cathartic, ecstatic moments that happen within a play or in a worship service sometimes are truly the result and success of finely-honed and manufactured plans on the part of the artist or worship leader. But it’s the moments of authentic failure, those moments when we all sit and wonder, “Is everyone else seeing this? Is everyone else as embarrassed or bored or terrified as I am?,” it’s those terrifying moments that we remember for days, weeks, months, and years. These moments do transform us, maybe not in the way we’d hoped, but they do. We hold them inside us and, though we might be too embarrassed to tell anyone, they unshackle us from the boring successes of the world and lift us into the transcendent possibilities for transformation present in each embarrassing moment of non-success. May we all continue to throw ourselves onto this big stage, smiling and cringing, flubbing and cracking, and always, always unabashedly succeeding at failure. Mediocrity will always be in the eye of the beholder, so go big or go home. Here’s my soul. I hope it appeals to your soul.

Let us pray:
Creative Hand of the Universe:
Grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to count them all worth our time.

1. Urban Dictionary:
2. Mark O’Donnell, from an interview on, August 2004.

55 Washington Square South New York, NY 10012 | phone: 212-477-0351 | fax: 212-995-0844