Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Fierce Things

“[T]he curious disappearance of satire from our literature is an instance of the fierce things fading for want of any principal to be fierce about.”
                ~G. K. Chesterton

So far this blog has been a lot of work.  I think it’s because I have a hard time separating what I want to talk about and what God seems to want me to talk about.  It seems like I have to write four or five posts before I’m ready to just listen.  So what now?  I’ve talked about why we create, and I’ve talked about the power of art.  I couldn’t figure out what to write about next.

Last Saturday, I wrote a poem about God calling people.  It was kind of a re-drafting of two poems I wrote years ago that didn’t really work – one was about Abraham, the other about Philip.  So the first two stanzas of the new poem are about them.  Then there’s a stanza about Jonah, then one about Paul.  Finally, I ended with a stanza about us.  I typed it up and moved on with my day.  But in church on Sunday, the pastor’s sermon was Jonah, chapter one, and it was all about being called and how we respond to it – he even referenced the same story about Paul.  I just kept thinking, ‘Ok.  I hear you.  This is…not a coincidence.’

We tend to think of a ‘calling’ in terms of full-time ministry.  Prophets are called.  Missionaries are called.  Pastors are called.  Most of us are just ‘living our lives’.  I used to think so, too, but I’m beginning to think that God has a calling of some sort for each and every one of us.[1]  The more I try to get out of it (and then don’t), the more I’m convinced that God has called me to military service.  There is nothing full-time ministry about that.  At the same time, the more misguided blog posts that I write, the more convinced I am that there is some other blog post that I’m supposed to be writing.  And the more I have tried to avoid writing ‘Christian literature,’ the more poems God has given me about Him – suggesting that Christian literature is exactly where I should be.[2]

I can’t (or at least, I shouldn’t) look at these callings differently from each other – the call to service is as much of God as the writing.  Some are called to be mothers, doctors, businessmen, teachers, tax men, sales clerks, lawyers…anything and everything.  If you are following a calling in your profession, you’re not just ‘living your life’.  It’s the same for artists, and what a blessing to be called to a vocation that allows us to speak to souls about God in such a unique way.  My brother is a musician; he plays in a symphony.  This is not ‘Christian’ art, but it is good art, and his contribution to it is also good.  Art does not have to be overtly about God to be a witness to Him.  The first piece of art was made by God Himself, and He looked at it and saw that it was “very good” (Genesis 1:31).  Do we find the word ‘Jesus’ in an aerial view of the earth?  In a constellation?  No.  And yet, all of creation points to God (Romans 1:20).

I recently visited Atlanta’s High Museum of Art.  There was one area housing a few pieces by a certain artist, pieces that I couldn’t figure out the point of.  They were the only ones in the entire museum that didn’t seem to mean anything, including several pieces of art that I genuinely disliked (art is, after all, a matter of taste).  But these were the only pieces that weren’t saying anything.  I read the small placard, hoping it would illuminate their purpose.  It explained the artists’ goal, which also said nothing beyond itself.[3]  A person doesn’t have to understand a thing to sense something in it, but neither understanding nor response will come from art that doesn’t point to something beyond itself – this is truly ‘art for art’s sake’, and it is empty and lifeless and cold.

It’s important for artists to resist creating solely for ourselves.  We have a calling.  Therefore, we need to create in a way that fulfills that calling.  We must create for another person; for a cause; for God; for a reason.  If we do that, our art will live and touch people.  The importance of creating art that suggests something beyond itself is true of secular art, and it is true of ‘Christian’ art.  This is the proper response to an artistic calling, no matter the market:  Not just to create, but to create well.

It is very tempting at this point to devolve into a discussion of the general state of explicitly Christian art in our present culture.[4]  But I have come to the conclusion that my energy is misplaced when I do that – I don’t think it really matters.  We get side-tracked by such things, which is, perhaps, only natural; if the ‘fierce things’ really are fading, does it not follow that our souls will grasp for other things to be fierce about?  This is not to say that I’m not bothered by the state of contemporary Christian art.  I have a sinking suspicion that the general lack of variety and quality in explicitly Christian art is symptomatic of the very death of fierceness in our beliefs.  In this sense, it concerns me deeply.[5]  But our focus needn’t be on trying to ‘fix’ it; on trying to ‘solve’ this ‘problem’.  If we focus on our own callings instead, and believe in God fiercely, our art will reflect that.  In other words, “seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33).

No one artist can do this on his own, nor even a small group of outliers – we have these already.  So I am praying for a new renaissance in the contemporary church of our culture, at large.  I want to be able to walk out of a Christian bookstore with my head held high and my arms full of quality merchandise.  I want the world to know that Christians make the best artists, because their God is the original Artist.  I want us to be the creators of living Things that speak to people’s souls.  As with anything else, if we have a calling to this work, we need to do it well.


[1] This is different from the murkier ‘God’s plan for our lives’.
[2] But not necessarily via Christian publishing houses.
[3] Note:  If you have to explain why you made something (not to be confused with discussing its meaning with people who already have their own ideas about it), this may be a sign that your work is dead.
[4] Indeed, I did so in at least three previous drafts of this article, each time with dissatisfying results.
[5] The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced this is the same reason so many people in the US are forsaking church.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Power of Art

The habit, very prevalent today, of dismissing words as “just words” takes no account of their power.
                ~Dorothy Sayers

Usually when I write a poem, it’s because the first few lines have popped into my head.  I’ve been thinking about something, or I see something, or I’m feeling frustrated, or a Bible verse is demanding my attention.  I always try to write those first lines down right away so I won’t forget them - nine times out of ten, I end up writing the whole poem right then.  In such cases, I usually write the poem in order, that is to say, stanza by stanza, and more or less even line by line.  I make changes as I go, of course, and more when I ‘finish’ and read over the whole work, and again when I type it up.

I think I’ve written every single poem on paper, with a pencil.  In the margins of those pages are scribbled lists of words that rhyme with whatever I’ve already written – some poems have many scribbles, crossed-out words, and erased and re-written portions, and some don’t.  It’s a process, and some poems are harder in the writing than others.  In the end, though, I have written the poem – I have chosen which words to use, and what structure; I have shaped the poem to fit an overarching idea, which often becomes more clear to me even as I write.  The process in its entirety is exactly as described by Dorothy Sayers in The Mind of the Maker,[1] though she uses the example of writing books and plays:  Where she discusses controlling free-willed characters to fit together with the plot,[2] my ‘characters’ are rhyme, meter and stanza, and my ‘plot’ is what I’m trying to say.

Because the process is the same, so are the results.  I have ‘predestined’ my poems to be a certain way; I have controlled their formation.  The structural elements have a ‘life of their own’, which is their free will, but as long as I keep them bound to the overall concept, they will conform to it and make the finished poem something altogether independent of the author.  This is a wonderful thing to experience as a writer, and is half the blessing of doing the work – as much as a person may be moved by someone else’s creation, its creator is privileged to be moved by it first.  This independence, however, is also very troublesome for someone like myself – I hesitate to share my creations with strangers, lest they ‘over-analyze’ them.[3]

But there is a difference between introducing foreign ideas and gleaning truths that were hidden.  Here again, Dorothy Sayers[4] has things to say, reassuring me that, just as the poem exerted its free will to result in something I could not have entirely preconceived, so also the free will and unique experience of the reader can see things in it that I didn’t notice.  This is, again, because art connects with us at the soul-level.  There is Power in the Word, and there is Power in words; neither return empty[5] when there is Power in the soul.

Ultimately, the artist and the feeling he puts into his art don’t matter; it is what the consumer receives from it that is important, and this is why our creations outlive us.  If the consumer is affected in a way that is consistent with the work, he will either love or hate it, just as people respond to teaching and prophesy with either joy or derisive laughter; sackcloth or stones.  It is not the job of the artist to try to control this reaction – that is impossible.  It is the artist’s job to create a conduit through which God may choose to speak to the soul; to use his gift to “profit all.”[6]  It is the consumer’s job to approach the work in the right spirit – to see what it is meant to say to him, and not what he wants it to say.[7]  Those who approach art otherwise may be surprised by some revelation, but usually they will walk away content to talk about brush strokes.[8]

Consequently, there are three aspects of a creative work:  There is the artist who rendered it, there is the consumer who responds to it, and there is God,[9] who inspired it and infuses it with the power to engender that response.  Herein lies the power of art:  That God may use it, as He will, to provoke within us not just an emotional response, but a spiritual one; not just feeling, but action.  That is why various institutions have been wont to treat art and its creators as dangerous, flinging insults like ‘subversive’ at them like rice at evil spirits.  Of course, the irony is, art and its creators are dangerous; not in the way those institutions tend to think, but in the same way that C. S. Lewis’ Aslan is not a tame lion.[10]  There is Power in the Word, and power is dangerous, because it can effect change.  I mentioned what is not the artist’s job.  What is the artist’s job is to ensure that what he is creating is of and for God; there is plenty out there already that is not.


[1] Chapter five, Free Will and Miracle.
[2] Characters who nevertheless have enough free will to interact with the plot in ways that surprise the author.
[3] I was an English major, and I was always frustrated by that when it occurred in my classes.
[4] Chapter eight, Pentecost.
[5] Isaiah 55:11
[6] 1 Corinthians 12:7
[7] It seems prudent to note that, in order for a work of art to have its full effect, the consumer must also approach it with the understanding that if it has anything to say to him, it is probably about his own state, or about God, and not about the artist; once the piece is finished, the artist is nothing, though we can’t help but sense the piece of him that is in his work.  In the same way, we don’t read the Bible to study the men who wrote it.  We will, of course, learn something about them, but the primary purpose must be to learn about God (and our relationship to Him); and that not as we would make Him, but as He is.
[8] In all of this, I am differentiating between the spiritual interests of a consumer, and the technical interests of a student.  I am only concerned with the former, for whom the actual making of the piece has no real import; for the latter, the brush stroke is a legitimate focus, though the student is still unlikely to 'hear' anything from such an approach.
[9] This statement is related to, but not the same as, Dorothy Sayers’ brilliant analogy of the Trinity in The Mind of the Maker.
[10] The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.