|Paul in Prison, Rembrandt|
"Art as exploration" is about exploring truth and beauty and reflecting them in ways that are so full of meaning that they cannot be reduced to a practical paraphrase. Jesus didn't say "give them poetry"? Then whey did he give us so much poetry, and quote the Psalms, which are full of poetry, relentlessly? Why were his statements about himself full of poetry? Why did he turn his Last Supper into the most intimate and mysterious and extravagant kind of culinary poem? I love God's glory too much to reduce it to clumsy, shallow terminology. As the psalmists and the prophets demonstrated, God speaks in poetry, acts in poetry, and inspires poetry in response. To explore truth and beauty is an act of listening and discovering, not merely deciding we have it all figured out and offering formulas and platitudes. I never, ever said that readers won't sense "messages " in my story. I just said that I didn't write them to deliver messages, but invite readers into experiences, hoping that they would experience beauty and truth in more encompassing ways than a mere allegory or lesson can provide.
"You do not write the best you can for the sake of art, but for the sake of returning your talent increased to the invisible God to use or not use as He sees fit." Flannery O'Connor
”…the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see it its relation to that. I don’t think this is a position that can be taken halfway or one that is particularly easy in these times to make transparent in fiction.”
and more, “The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience…”
if I may, another Flannery, “The Christian writer particularly will feel that whatever his initial gift is, it comes from God; and no matter how minor a gift it is, he will not be willing to destroy it by trying to use it outside its proper limits...The sharper the eye of faith, the more glaring are apt to be the distortions the writer sees in the life around him.”
“It is the artist who realizes that there is a supreme force above him and works gladly away as a small apprentice under God's heaven.”
Great stuff, Douglas! And here's one of my favorites:
"The Christian writer does not decide what would be good for the world and proceed to deliver it. Like a very doubtful Jacob, he confronts what stands in his path and wonders if he will come out of the struggle at all." - Flannery O'Connor
T.S. Eliot: "[T]he last thing I would wish for would be the existence of two literatures, one for Christian consumption and the other for the pagan world. What I believe to be incumbent upon all Christians is the duty of maintaining consciously certain standards and criteria of criticism over and above those applied by the rest of the world; and that by these criteria and standards everything that we read must be tested."
She rarely misses. I find what Lewis says about my mindset when writing most helpful in being honest and authentic (and avoiding the lame and cheesy)--don't write what you think they want, or what you think they need; write what you need. This keeps me from either preaching or from aping what I think will be seen as artsy. More Flannery, “All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it...I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace.”
O'Connor was intentional about her work having a distinctly Christian purpose, a grace and redemption in Christ purpose, and she acknowledges that this will be a problem for us, but that the Christian novelist wants to get a message across to an audience, a hostile one: “The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience…”
Absolutely. But can the "point" of any O'Connor story be succinctly paraphrased? I don't think so. She knew that what she wanted to reflect to readers was too large to boil down to a "moral to the story." She invited us into transformative experiences. And I'll bet readers found much more insight within them than even she intended. She was wrestling and struggling, as she testifies in her own words in my earlier quotation.
Further, note that the *way* she went about her writing resulted in work that is usually shelved in "Literature," studied and cherished in literature courses far and wide, and it is the source of inspiration for readers and artists both secular and Christian. While Flannery was a Christian, she wrote fiction about the world, for the world, with higher standards of excellence and artistry than almost anybody. And the beauty and terror of those stories fulfills the rigorous demands of poetry.
Agreed on Flannery; I'm a big fan, but especially of her boiling down of what she's intending to do in her great work Mystery and Manners (from which most of the above quotes come). I wonder about creating a dichotomy between writing about the world for the world, as you say. "Get his vision across to this hostile audience," as she says her goal is, sounds very much like she has an intentional message she wants to get across to the world, which starts sounding less and less like what your describing. Here's her words again: “The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience…”
Lewis considered Psalm 19 to be the greatest lyric ever penned. Whether we agree or disagree with him on the particular example, help me understand what you are wanting Christian writers to accomplish in light of the objective, explicit glory-of-God-centered message of that stupendous poem. Obvious its creator didn't think he was merely giving readers an experience without objective, explicit content glorifying God. When I have heard or read you (this is meant kindly but honestly) I come away feeling like many writers might be now think that they will be a real author, writing real literature, if they suppress the kind of objective purpose so obvious in biblical poetry and story. All this said, I could not agree more that vast material that masquerades as "Christian" literature is neither.
Douglas, you ask a big question... you get a big answer. In my opinion (which is not static, by the way, it's always changing based on experience and encounters with other artists), Christians can write all kinds of different things for all kinds of different reasons. More power to them. If they look at the scenery and are moved to write a poem of praise to God or a hymn or a sermon, fantastic. Psalm 19 is a beautiful poem, and it rivals Psalm 23 as my own personal favorite. They both stand out as poems about God because of how beautifully and poetically they express the psalmist's awe and love and passion for God. The poetry of them enables them to offer new nuances of thought every time I read them. What I've been talking about from the beginning of the post that prompted all of this fuss is how labels can do damage...
...As fiction writer, I want to glorify God by writing to the best of my ability, by showing love to creation through the particulars of my work, and by loving my characters by writing about them so passionately that they will "take on lives of their own" and surprise me with what they reveal. I started writing "Auralia's Colors" not because I had a point to make, but because I had a picture in my head of a colorless city in the middle of a colorful kingdom, and I saw an artist standing on a high place and looking out over that city and weeping. I felt compelled to write about her. I was curious. I sensed that there was something big and beautiful there, and it was my job to "serve the story," to give it a shape and find the beauty in it. I could list all kinds of ways that I encountered truth along the way.
My original point -- the whole purpose of the post -- was to say that if it is branded as a "Christian story," then most of those who I would invite to enjoy the story will avoid it, and most who read it will go in thinking the story is about something much narrower in scope that it is. Further, I have read stories and poems by "unbelievers" that have revealed the truths of Christ as powerfully to me as stories and poems by Christians. This should come as no surprise, since all of us are made in the image of God, we all have "eternity in our hearts," and when we reflect what is beautiful and true, we reflect God's glory whether we like it or not. So, are those "Christian stories"?
I am purposeful: I want to write stories that reflect that truth and the beauty and the glory of God. But I want to do so in a way that recognizes that *God* is the one who owns the truth and the beauty, and while I may capture some of it in my work, it is not *mine* to explain or deliver. It is God's. And if I do a good job, that truth and beauty will speak in ways beyond my expectations or guesses. Rather than talking about "Christian stories," I would prefer to talk about stories that are true and beautiful. If they are those things, they are reflecting Christ, no matter who wrote them, no matter where you find them in the bookstore.
These observations are based on my experience, and I offer them in hopes that they'll be helpful to somebody. Humility demands that I attach an implied "I could be wrong" to everything. This journey of artmaking is a journey of faith, not certainty. I leave the certainties to God.
Thanks for such a thoughtful, honest reply. I too feel like a work in progress (because I am!). There's little I disagree with in your post, however, I still have this nagging worry that we as Christians who write might decide that vagueness is to be preferred to clarity, that the implicit is superior to the explicit, that Christ and his grace is so beyond words in splendor (and it is) that we decide not to communicate with the actual words God has revealed to us, entrusted to us, to grow in our grasp of it and to better understand the world and be agents of Christ's rescue of it.
I want to recognize that God calls and gifts authors very differently (believers or unbelievers, remember what Augustine wrote about Cicero; in this I totally agree with you and often make the same point with passion). Bunyan was not first and foremost thinking about creating art (Milton was, I think), but using his God-given gift of imagination, he wanted to awaken readers to see their lives as a story, a journey with terrifyingly real outcomes, and thereby communicate the good news of God's rescue operation in the gospel to them.
I don't by that mean that every author is called to write Christian allegory, far from it. Yet, according to the light I've been given, I want to create the deepest longings for beauty and for truth, the Truth, with every stroke, the God of beauty and imagination aiding me. If secular critics don't think it measures up to their ever-changing criteria for being ranked as literature, that is of no concern to me; I am measured by a far less fickle and more ultimate judicatory.
I don't think we're far apart on this, Douglas. I don't want "vagueness." But I do want the kind of ambiguity that is present wherever I encounter truth and beauty. It's not an ambiguity that says "You cannot know the truth." It's an ambiguity that says, "Close, but not quite" and "Yes, but there's more." Remember George Macdonald, who always wanted us to travel ""further up and further in."
When I read Jesus' stories, or Emily Dickinson's poems, or The Lord of the Rings, or Marilynne Robinson, I glean all kinds of wisdom that the story *shows*. In the same way, when I look at the Grand Canyon, or the night sky, or my cat, or my wife, or my nephews and nieces, I can find wisdom in paying attention, along with constant hints that there is more to be discovered! Oh, Lord my God... when I ... When I what? When I ... IN AWESOME WONDER... consider all the worlds thy hands have made... I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed... then, what? Do I turn around and merely try to *explain* it to people? No. THEN SINGS MY SOUL.
This from Carl Trueman in Ref21 this morning seemed apropos to our discussion: "The evangelical world loves psychological struggle but typically of a predictable, conventional, coffee house and navel-gazing type. The Rob Bells and the Donald Millers write the bestsellers, after all, laying out their latte-fuelled musings for all to see. Yet, for all of the flaunting of their "authenticity", to me they simply look like poseurs, products of the comparative comfort and prosperity of the West. My guess is that poor workers in dead end jobs know more about struggle and worry than the self-styled arrivistes and artists of post-evangelical angst. But such people are too busy trying to put bread in their children's mouths to have the spare time to write bestsellers about how modishly authentic they are compared to everyone else.
Augustine was cut from different cloth...."
I ran into two statements this week that reminded me of our discussion here. First: Pope Francis, breaking with church tradition, kissed and washed the feet of women. Speaking about the startling, inspiring gesture, he said, "The gesture ... [came] from my heart. Things from the heart don't have an explanation." So, Pope Francis... what is "the message" of what you've done? Pope Francis seems to believe that the meaning of his gesture is something beyond a mere explanation. Does that mean it's "meaningless"? Of course not.
In the same way, I never claimed that my stories were meaningless, or that good storytelling is merely arbitrary. I said that the the meaning cannot be reduced down to a mere "message."
Second, I came across an interview with Pixar's Pete Docter, director and writer of "Monster's Inc." Docter is a Christian and a wonderful storyteller. Discussing his faith and his writing, he said: "Even if you have a moral to a story, if you actually come out and say it, it loses its power. Not that we’re trying to be sneaky or anything, but you have more ability to affect people if you’re not quite so blatant about it. Does that make sense? ... To me art is about expressing something that can’t be said in literal terms. You can say it in words, but it’s always just beyond the reach of actual words, and you’re doing whatever you can to communicate a sense of something that is beyond you."
So... is Pete Docter denying that there are any "messages" in his stories? Of course not. But he *is* saying that did not intend to "deliver messages." He was doing something larger than that... seeking to convey something "beyond" the reach of explanation, something that "can't be said in literal terms."
Continued on next post, my reply...