Cubism and Community

Learning the art of friendship in grad school

I can’t remember the name of the class now—something like “Art And Our World 399.” I do remember the fighting. It was 3 a.m.-ish when it boiled over. Everyone was greasy, dog-tired, over-caffeinated and about to get an F on the biggest project of our academic lives.

The three graduate students and two undergrads I was cloistered with in this last-minute project prep session didn’t get along from the start. On the eve of the due date, our normal dysfunction escalated into open warfare. Two were yelling, one was crying and one paced while I sat in a trance, wondering if the grade I was about to receive would lead directly to life in a van, under a bridge, down by the river.  

In the midst of this GPA death roll, a strange brain burp bubbled to the top of my head. I realized our problem wasn’t about dissecting Cubism, but about negotiating community.  

Community is fundamental to me. Even today our campus ministry is still heavily influenced by the Jesus people, patchouli-oil-soaked, 1970s community-centric mode of being. When I got involved in the 1980s, we were far from perfect (our diversity at that time went from white to see-through), but one thing was certain: we practiced community with a passion. Once I stopped looking at the art project issues and started looking at the community dynamic issues, I knew exactly what to do to get our grade back on track.

Talk-ability Mode

The guy who taught me the most about community was a giant, former NAVY seaman turned campus missionary named Ron. He had one of those old-school mustaches that made him look like a giant Holy Ghost walrus, and his gentle nature made him great at starting lengthy discussions, soliciting vulnerable admissions and even facilitating loving confrontation.

With impeccable hermeneutics and serious personal humility, he spent his days buying us Cokes, asking questions and letting us talk. So powerful were his dialogue-inducing skills that our small group bonded on a level I have never experienced before or since.

The in-depth relationship of that time seems to be lost today. Too often the financial pressures and hectic academic loads of competitive programs make real vulnerability seem impossible. I frequently meet graduate students who have impressive resumes but no actual friends—some even mistaking professional networking for real community.

Finding the time to talk before task is essential. Yes, it can be time-consuming, but the value of immersing oneself in that Ephesians 4 “speak the truth in love” community is often the best way to see trust and real character transformation develop.

Our group project was typical of this lack of bonding talk. We had failed to actually process relationship before tackling our task, and the result was an inability to work together on even the simplest of goals.

Humor Hangovers

Just last year, after three days of hard work together, a group of campus ministry leaders and I went to a Eugene, Ore., bistro (where the whole wheat organic hummus is 30 percent more organic) for a post-project debrief. Our conversation turned to “the worst church skit you have ever led.” As the tales of bad acting and even worse dancing piled high (think early-round American Idol meets Carmen), my ahi tuna threatened to repeatedly shoot out of my nose. The next day my spirit was full, but my muscles were actually sore from the laughing.

This was not the first time I’ve had a humor hangover. I have observed over and over again that healthy communities laugh a lot—especially at themselves. I can’t tell you how many pizza-soaked nights I spent in hilarity during those first days on campus. And some of the funniest moments came in the midst of our most trying times. In a world of perpetual deadlines, program expectations, problematic dates and an abundance of pain, the joy of the Lord must be our strength (Nehemiah 8:10, NIV). Simply put, one either chooses to laugh or go insane.

This does not mean we are ignorant of social injustices or that we target the weak with cruel satire. It does mean we are humble enough to see our own faults as comedy gold. It also means we see our place in God’s Kingdom with a laughter-tinged realistic perspective. Laughter is the evidence of a biblical humility that trusts God’s sovereignty over our importance.

Typical of art students (and Christians, I might add,) we were taking our project and ourselves too seriously. The result was a lot of preaching at each other and not much progress.

Cash and Carry

In those early days, I was basically a part of a functioning communist kibbutz. We shared everything: money, cars, pizza, laundry duty, etc.  No one demanded that we live collectively. We did it to survive (we were poor) and we did it because of our belief in the power of community.

We were taught that the mission of man was reconciliation—first with God and then with each other. Late into the night we dialogued about every implication of the Greek pronoun allelous: Love one another, carry one another’s burdens and forgive one another were our topics du jour.

God was the “with” God—triune and Immanuel. He was the relational instigator with Abraham, Moses, David, the disciples and all of mankind. The ultimate means by which He demonstrated His “with” nature was the cross. It was clear to us: Real communities instigated relationship and made sacrifices for each other.

The real problem in my little art group was simple selfishness. If we couldn’t find a way to sacrifice for one another, we were not going to be able to work together.

The first step was getting us to talk. Out of desperation, they agreed to my suggestion that we sit in a circle and follow some small group 101 ground rules. No one interrupts. All eyes on whoever has the floor. Ask questions instead of making criticisms. I made them chitchat about their lives and just as the conversation started to ease, I asked each one to admit to one area in which they had personally failed the group. I took the first turn at confessing, and, as I mocked myself for an unmet deadline, they laughed. Right then, I knew I had ‘em.

As we continued our conversation, the fun and the sense of mutual deference began to grow. By 6 a.m., we were finished with the project and all fear of living in vans under bridges had left the room. As we packed to leave, someone asked me if I had taken a masters course in group dynamics. “Nope,” I said. “Just four years living out community in small group Bible studies.”

Curt Harlow is the West Coast Director for Chi Alpha Campus Ministry. He travels extensively to speak, train, mobilize and coach campus ministry planters, especially in CA, AZ, NV and HI. For more about Curt and what he does, follow him at twitter.com/curtharlow.

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