I have wanted, from my first round blogging for TheoCult, to write a post about art—good art versus bad art, the pratfalls of “Christian art,” the tension of being a “Christian artist,” and so on—yet not without some apprehension.
Partly, of course, this is because I would by no means be the first person to blog on this subject on TheoCult (e.g., this, or this, or this) or anywhere for that matter. And who wants to read different people all ramble on about the same thing? What could I possibly add to this discourse that has not already been more eloquently stated? As I writer, the temptation to state it more eloquently is there, but what does eloquence add to regurgitation? Vomit on the tip of Van Gogh’s brush is nonetheless vomit. (Now there’s an image for you.)
Also, there was (and is) the fear of being perceived as (or actually being) an elitist—which no “true” artist wants to be, and yet in some way inevitably is.
However, despite these apprehensions, the persistence of these thoughts does not diminish; the desire to focus my disparate artistic musings into something cohesive remains. And thus I write, as a writer, an artist, my first blog about art.
In “Church Not Made with Hands,” a short story from David Foster Wallace’s collection, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, a character referred to as “a different teacher” says that “All true art is music” (195). I have pondered on that statement since I read it—its truth, its assumptions, its implications. Perhaps I am biased (though it is a bias likely shared with the late Mr. Wallace himself), but I disagree. I don’t think all true art is music. I think all true art is story.
Story is the ultimate objective of art, its aim, its purpose. It is the truest expression of art.
“What about beauty?” you might ask. “Isn’t art supposed to be beautiful? Isn’t ‘Christian art’ supposed to reveal the beauty of God?”
Yes, certainly—but what’s more beautiful than a fully culminated story? What’s more beautiful than a perfectly crafted novel with elegantly flowing prose, with a story and characters so natural they couldn’t possibly have been invented but discovered, where every element clicks into place and every symbol resonates in harmony with the final word? (This is why I personally believe that the novel is the most profoundly beautiful and challenging art form.) And what’s more beautiful than a life captured by the Gospel (God’s story), enveloped in the hope of promises realized—that light, indeed, will shine out in the darkness and not be overcome?
When God created, it was beautiful. But He did not make the universe and everything within it simply to gaze at the beauty of His perfect craftsmanship, to admire the fruition of His painterly imagination: He chose to live within His work, to walk among His image-bearers. From the very beginning, God was writing a story. The world was literally spoken into existence by God’s words, and life is the story birthed from those words.
Story is the truest expression of art because it is the truest expression of life, which itself is a response to God—an action. True art must be story because it reflects (explores, engages, discusses, questions, analyzes, interprets, invents, reinvents) life, and life is a story. And art which resists (see the action there?) a simple or easy narrative is not necessarily devoid of story. Even supposedly “non-narrative” art (such as abstract painting or some non-lyrical instrumental music) exhibits story simply in its process of being created. The creative process of each artist and each piece of art is, in some sense, a “creation account,” a Genesis. That art requires an artist at all is a beautiful story of mutual discovery—the artist’s need to create and the art’s need to be created.
Dr. Marinus, from David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, when pressed about the anatomical location of the human soul, responds that “The soul is a verb… Not a noun” (146). Story is the soul of art; story is what art does.
Much like God’s art, which was not meant to stagnate but to thrive and fill the earth, true art does not exist only to be observed, or in the case of music (which is a sort of auditory painting), only to be heard. Art should move; in particular it should move you—because a good story brings you somewhere.
Allow me at this point to take a step back and make a critique: contemporary Western Christians (or at least contemporary Western Christian culture) do not want story, they want a message.
In his article, “The Church Is Full of Dymschitz,” Skye Jethani criticizes the Western Church’s insistence on “mission” over “beauty,” asserting that the Church has no time for the missional inefficiency of art which doesn’t clearly communicate “the Gospel message.” He compares this mindset with that of Alexander Dymschitz, the former head of the Cultural Division of the Soviet Military Administration (i.e., Chief of the Art Police), who went to great lengths not only to ensure that Soviet art “conveyed a clear message” which bolstered the party’s values, but also to eradicate that which did not.
A message is simple, clear, efficient. A story, by contrast, is complex, opaque, and must be wrestled through, because life is complex, opaque, and must be wrestled through. The Bible is not the oversimplified list of pithy maxims we often make it out to be. It is a story; it is complex, often opaque, and certainly must be wrestled through.
But because we favor message over story (in other words, having the right answers is superior to asking the right questions), our art also favors the flat and the pacifying over depth and struggle. And while we have sure and unalterable hope in Christ, we don’t really know how our story (or how the Story) is going to end. We don’t know what comes next—moment to moment, or glory to glory. We don’t have all the answers, and, like a good story, we’d be cheating ourselves of meaning and experience by skipping ahead—no matter how tempting it sounds in those moments of dire peril (oh, the assurance it would being just to know!).
For the same reasons that ‘message’ is preferred to ‘story’ (simplicity, clarity, and efficiency), contemporary Western Christian culture also prefers signs to symbols.
Madeleine L’Engle, in her book on Christian art, Walking on Water, discusses the difference between the two: “A sign may point the way to something, such as: Athens—10 kilometers. But the sign is not Athens, even when we reach the city limits and read Athens. A symbol, however, unlike a sign, contains within it some quality of what it represents” (23).
So often in life, as in art, we are looking, begging, for “a sign.” We want something simple, clear, and efficient to indicate the right answer to our question, the right choice in our dilemma, the right path for our marching feet. The Christian life, in this case, is just a matter of doing everything right. And Christian art needs not be anything more than a dogmatically correct arrow, pointing in the direction of Jesus (probably also flashing in neon lights: “BELIEVE THIS.”)
Symbols are not so simple. Symbols are mysterious, like God is mysterious—being, in themselves the basic thing they actually are, while in some intangible way also encompassing some element or quality of that which they represent. Like the Word-Made-Flesh, they inhabit a sort of Eucharistic unity and dualism—bread & wine: body & blood.
We can read the Bible as merely a list of maxims. We can comply with Jesus as the ‘right’ belief about the world. We can live life in the ‘right’ direction, following simple, clear, and efficient signs. But where does that bring you? Isn’t God’s Word more mystical than that? Isn’t the Son of God more glorious than that? Isn’t life more beautiful than that? Art (and religion) which reflects the former mindset brings you nowhere. Like L’Engle’s sign, Athens, our simple substitutes may be comprehensible, but they’re not our God, and not our story.
Life is often dark. It is often challenging, sorrowful, and fearful. A message or sign does not exist that can lead you through the Valley of Death and into green pastures and still waters. But from the beginning, God has been writing a story, and He has been living—mysteriously leading, loving, calling, and creating—with us, within His Story.
…I knew, as a child, that it was through story that I was able to make some small sense of the confusions and complications of life. The sound of coughing from my father’s gas-burned lungs was a constant reminder of war [WWI] and its terror…. The thought that there could ever be another war was a deep source of fear…. I was frightened, and I tried to heal my fear with stories, stories which gave me courage, stores which affirmed that ultimately love is stronger than hate. If love is stronger than hate, then war is not all there is. I wrote, and I illustrated my stories. At bedtime my mother told me stories. And so story helped me learn to live. Story was in no way an evasion of life, but a way of living life creatively instead of fearfully. (55)
We need not be afraid, as Christians, to wrestle with story, with true art. We were made to imitate God, who is an Artist, who is a Writer, a Storyteller. We, who are compelled to create, do so because of an implicit invitation from our Father to reflect, explore, engage, discuss, question, analyze, interpret, invent, and reinvent His Story—of Creation, Fall, and Redemption.
Speaking of “BELIEVE THIS”—the verse under that heading in my TheoCult bio is the very last verse of John’s Gospel: “Now there are many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain that books that would be written.”
I have this (I think) rather beautiful thought that we, Christ’s body—His actual body—who Jesus Himself said would do “greater things” than He did, are not only doing the things John alludes to, but we are writing the books that the world cannot contain.
God is calling His Church to create, and for our art, our stories, to thrive and fill the earth—a world overflowing with His wondrous works.