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Thursday, October 11, 2007

paint

The whole idea of it is old, at least for me.

I grew up with a brother who wanted to be an artist. An enduring memory is a Christmas Day when he was 15 or 16 and he spent the entire day on his bed in the room we shared reading The Agony and the Ecstasy. He was older than me by five years. Soon he was off to university for his Bachelor's in Fine Arts and south to the States for his Master's. Caught up in his world I brought it with me when Christ became the revelation that revolutionized my life. It did not take long for me to realize I was trying to mix oil and water. The first story I sold at 14 or 15 was published by an evangelical firm that gutted my fiction before printing it, something I did not know until I received a copy of what they were going to release. All the depth and complexity I had worked so hard to include in a story of a boy coming to faith in God was gone, vaporized. The firm didn't want art. They wanted a tract. Or to put it bluntly, propaganda.

Forty years later nothing has changed. It's actually probably worse. The evangelical publishing houses still want tracts, formulas, genre fiction that never slips out from under the locked doors of its predictability. They don't want art. Art is certainly not formula, certainly not predictable. It is messy and you never know where it is going to take you, simply because an ending has not been preordained in order to serve a particular genre. It's God and mud and blood and ink and cyberchips and the volcanic, unlimited human imagination.

Where the story gets really old is in the paint. Remember that oil and water don't mix? So oil paint and the waters of Christian baptism don't work well together. Or so somebody decided in the 19th and 20th centuries. Which my brother points out to me. (He who has read Rookmaker's Modern Art and the Death of a Culture with approval, arguing only that you can't go back to the Christian era, if Christians want to paint they have to do it in the now, the modern or postmodern era.) Which brings up his persistent point. Why did Christians stop painting works of art?

Trying to deny profound Christian influence in the arts of Western civilization is like trying to deny Everest is a tall mountain. The Christian influence is all too obvious and its impact is just as obviously far reaching. Bach and Handel and Hadyn. Milton and Herbert and Donne. Rembrandt and Da Vinci and Michelangelo. Tolkien and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. But unquestionably the painting and sculpting stopped. At least it stopped making a difference.

Even though the first person mentioned in the Scriptures that is filled with the spirit of God is an artist, certain elements of Christianity have always been ill at ease with the arts. Somehow this attitude got the upper hand as the 19th century progressed. Did the Age of Enlightenment, pouring into the modern era, stop Christian artists from searching out Christ in paint and stone? Why didn't it stop other artists? Was it a Christian over-reaction to biblical higher criticism which challenged the veracity of the Bible? Did Christianity feel all resources had to be spent proving the Bible was literally true and there was no longer any effort made to support the arts? Did Western culture become less and less Christian and so less and less interested in Christian themes? Or did a certain spirit get into the Church that declared the arts not only frivolous to real faith but dangerous and in saying this gain the ear of an inordinate number of Christian believers and pastors?

I suppose if I was going to do Phd research on this topic I might find a number of reasons for the loss of Da Vincis and Rembrandts in the Christian faith. Personally, I think a whole wave of thought within Christianity turned its back on art as something that serious spiritual Christians might do. In particular, this affected the Protestant movement and the evangelical movement. In the same way Protestantism and evangelicalism should have kept monasticism but didn't, Protestantism and evangelicalism should have kept art but didn't. And the prints sold in evangelical bookstores prove it. As well as the absence of faith on the walls of downtown art galleries.

For a couple of decades there has been a growing resurgence of artistic activity within not only Christianity but, specifically, evangelical Christianity. It has not impacted Western culture yet in a way the Christian faith once did and there is still plenty of opposition with the evangelical Church to keep the flow of works small. But persistence of a few may mean the breaching of the dike that keeps Christ from talking to his world through literary fiction, poetry, theatre, ballet, popular and neo-classical music . . . and paint.

Then I will no longer have to admit to my brother that Christians, whose works of art have challenged and inspired the world, do not make paintings or sculptures anymore because they think art doesn't matter to God or humanity as much as a sermon or a tract or a book about the Anti-Christ and the end of the world. And he'll be able to look at a canvas and see not a formula in color but a living, breathing exploration of the spiritual dimension, no holds barred, no perspective barred, no Christ barred.

7 comments:

Pastor Josh said...

I just finished re-reading Pangur Ban. I've had Windhover Marsh for probably five years now and this absence of art has clearly been bugging you for some time. I always wondered if the cover was done by a brother, since his name is Bill Pura. I don't know much about art that I didn't read in Francis Schaeffer, and I don't know if Norman Rockwell qualifies as "art" in this sense of the word, but one of his paintings shows an older lady and a child praying over their lunch in a diner, and two twenty-ish guys with cigarettes staring at them as if they can't believe what they're seeing. It's not much, just a glance, but it doesn't make you smile, or laugh, like many of his portraits. Maybe evangelicals abandoned art because we've been clinging to this idea of Christ's return for so many years now that we want to just do the "necessary" stuff. I believe art is necessary. And letting go of art and concentrating too much on the end times has resulted in the Left Behind novels, the most vulgar mockery of style or thinking every to be committed to paper by believers. At any rate, thanks for the thoughts. I'd like to find Zo when it comes out, so I can get ahold of a longer story you've crafted.

EMP said...

Sigh of solidarity.

"Art is certainly not formula, certainly not predictable. It is messy and you never know where it is going to take you, simply because an ending has not been preordained in order to serve a particular genre. It's God and mud and blood and ink and cyberchips and the volcanic, unlimited human imagination."

Murray,
May I share this with my students? Yes. We explored the story of Bezalel, first biblical artist (who is named, no less), and it is with radiant joy and awe that I get to teach Milton and Donne and Herbert (two Johns and a George) at seminary. The (Christian) world could do with more Art, indeed.

murray said...

Kudos to the sem for doing the poets, kudos to Rob B who must have signed off on the inclusion, kudos to you for being there and willing (most willing!) to teach them. I hope some day you will be telling me you are teaching Gerard Manley Hopkins and TS Eliot as well. Pastors need to realize there is a long tradition not only of poets with Christian beliefs, but of pastors with poetical gifts and inclinations.

Well, EMP, I sure hope we get to meet one another soon. We are definitely kindred spirits.

EMP said...

Um. No doubt dearly beloved president RB approves, but he has no idea what I teach: Dr. Bill Faulkner hired me in 2004, and my academic dean, Dr. Steve Booth, evaluates me each year (we do peer evaluations, too); so far so good. But I truly have the freedom to teach whatever literature I choose. What a privilege! I squeezed in at least half a dozen GMH poems last semester (God's Grandeur, Pied Beauty...) and a couple of TS, too: two more (un)common favourites we share! "A cold coming we had of it/ Just the worst time of the year..."

murray said...

Since you are obviously a brave soul and unfettered spirit you may be able to sneak in Dante some day and also Catholic novelists like Graham Greene, Walker Percy (not my favourite, but . . . ), especially Greene's Monsignor Quixote. Of course, then they will have to read the original Don Quixote to get the most out of Greene and then after that more continental literature :o)

EMP said...

"...you are obviously a brave soul and unfettered spirit"--ha ha! Or merely foolish? Yes, I have taught Dante from Day One in my Eng. lit. course, to the dismay of my students; I even read some passages in the original (eek!) and I also encouraged them to read Milton's entire Paradise Lost (though none did, I'm sure). We have time only for excerpts in an intro course like mine.

I'm not (yet?) a fan of Greene (don't know Walker Percy) but will take a peek at Monsignor Quixote. My students do well just to cope with the basics of the three Johns--Bunyan, Donne and Milton--and of course we have far too much fun with Tolkien and Lewis!

I've rather enjoyed JK of late, and have secretly suspected her of being a God-honouring Christian for years already: a minority view in some school circles. Her HP themes of light and dark parallel Lewis and Tolkien and stand in strong contrast to, say, Pullman's Dark Materials (shudder). I would enjoy meeting JK in person.

murray said...

When we were touring the Jesuit college for rich and famous parents' kids, Stonyhurst, just outside of Liverpool, (google it so you will see the breadth and majesty of the place), my Brit friend and fellow PhD mate joked about it being Hogwarts - might as well have been - what an interior! - I don't think many Englisg can get far from the mystery of the Incarnation and the Redemption - their schools reflect this - they ALL still have theology departments whereas the US and CAN surrendered to militant secularism ages ago - not that it's improved their abilities to seek truth one iota - no, England and the UK are very different in that regard, so, as I say, JK has it in her soul and mind regardless - my fancy is to get Sir Ian McKelland to speak at grad in 2012 - and speak in character - "well, Murray, it gives me much comfort to find you here and to place the scroll and seal in your hand, much comfort" (then in a stage whisper) "but a new danger has crossed the river Ribble in Lancashire on midsummer's eve - be warned - gather up thy cloak and steel - make haste - to whom much is given much is required"

:o)