On Gilead and Me

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson has become one of my favorite books. I first read it late one night in my last year of seminary. Over the course of a few days, five different people recommended the book to me, so I decided to read it sooner than later. That Friday evening I made myself dinner, poured a drink, snuggled into my green velvet armchair beneath an affordable but lovely Tiffany lamp knock-off, and didn’t move until I’d read the entire book. This is the first book I’ve read in one sitting since I was a little girl. It captivated me. I laughed, I cried, I dreamed, I wondered, and I was comforted. I’ve reread the book twice since, and have a unique but consistently positive experience each time.

I recently began leading a book club at church, and chose to begin with Gilead. On the first week we met and got to know each other a little bit and I gave a brief introduction to the book. Due to the nature of this book, I structured the events so we would meet once for introduction and a reading of the first few pages, then regroup after a few weeks once we had all finished reading.

The diversity of reactions to the book was striking. For some, it was comfortable, warm, inviting, and even restful. For some, it was boring. For others, it is invasive and disquieting (some people even backed out because they hated the book so much).

Those who were bored, wondered when the plot would pick up. Those who were uncomfortable felt invasive being in Ames’ head the whole time. Those of us who loved the book, felt it was a similar experience to getting to know someone. Reading Gilead felt like sitting across the coffee table from a dear friend, late at night, for many nights, opening up each others’ worlds. It is intimate. So, just as in making a friend, you either hit it off, or you don’t. I found in John Ames a kindred spirit who shared my love of James Montgomery hymns, John Donne poetry, and a general concern for theological studies and how we are to engage them in relationships with actual people seeking or struggling to seek God. I found in him an elder who lived that life well, effectively, thoughtfully, and did benefit those around him. It’s amazing what art can teach us about ourselves.

The Reach of Hermeneutic

I’ve lately pondered why too many Christians seem to settle for sappy, simplistic, shallow arts. Works of literature, music, and film labeled “Christian” and mass-marketed in such circles have tended away from any objective qualifications of good art. They’ve turned toward something more akin to self-help positivism promoting Christian faith as a quick solution to struggle or listlessness in life. While discussing the recent film Silence with a group of colleagues and friends, I wondered if the true culprit of this disconnect (between the church and objectively good contemporary art) was a watered-down hermeneutic.

If Christians have sat in church and been fed three-point topical sermons in which multiple chapters of scripture are reduced to a single grand take-away; if they’ve been taught that the life of Abraham is there in the Bible that they might learn to be a leader like him, then they have been taught in their most frequent and formative interactions with great literature a poor, simple, shallow, and often sappy hermeneutic. From such a hermeneutic, many in the church have been conditioned to expect from art that the main character ought to be who I, the reader, ought to be like, that any helpful art can be reduced to a one-liner that makes me sleep better at night, and that it is better, and even more “Christian” for something to be nice than challenging. So, even when approaching a film with an explicitly Christian subject matter, such as Silence, many Christians get uncomfortable. Because they’ve not learned to deal with scripture in any complex or nuanced manner, but have acquired a flat hermeneutic, they’ve gained eyes that are blinded when confronted with other arts.

This shallow hermeneutic demands little from the art it discerns. It, thus, works best on little art. Complex art must be contorted or stripped to fit in such small places, to flow through small holes in a strainer where there ought to be a window. Those who have learned from poor preaching or self-help books masquerading as theology struggle to read scripture on their own in any meaningful way. They are limited to a single reading of the Psalms as a flat set of prayers intended for the church to one day pray about Jesus (many of which become very confused in this light). They are limited to reading the historical books as a novel, truly about how to be a friend like Jonathan is to David, or lessons on why you shouldn’t sleep with your wife’s friends even if she tells you to. This manner of reading scripture changes these Christians’ manner of approaching all other art.

These Christians are not able to appreciate good art in literature or in film or in music, because any sensitivity to nuance, any strength to confront the darkness and depravity of the world in an honest way (one of art’s best and most necessary qualities), and any patience for complexity have been purged from their minds by preachers who have flattened the Bible, and so their congregants’ worlds. This skill they ought to have learned well through a robust hermeneutic of scripture that is able to wade through the nuance and complexities of the inspired, multi-genre, intricately-woven spiritual relaying of redemptive history that it is. But a person who believes they ought to receive from the book of Isaiah one solid application point will have little patience for Silence.

Do not hear me say we should approach any and all art with the same hermeneutic we approach scripture. Rather, hear me acknowledge that it is right and good that a Christian’s hermeneutic of scripture would affect their readings of any and all other art, not in a 1:1 manner, but in a real way. No matter how much I like the film Paterson or Goethe’s Faust, they are not inspired. Yet I see goodness, beauty, and truth; struggle, evil, and redemption in both works. And because scripture has taught me what those realities are, what they mean, and what their effects are on the world, I can appreciate art that deals with these in a meaningful manner.

Tradition, II: Why Robots Can’t Be Artists

Art is personal expression with environmental, social, and historical sensitivity. It is by nature reactionary, and therein lies great strength. Be it commentary, critique, challenge, ode, memorial, or else; art is unseverably tied to its world. Thus what is demanded of the artist is a certain depth of cultural involvement and a fruitful sort of sensitivity. These demand a historical understanding achievable only through both contemporary awareness and a grappling with tradition. A grappling with tradition can only be honest, and so fruitful and impactful, if practiced with empathy.

The creations of a machine necessarily devolve into that type of tradition which Eliot warned against: a tradition that follows past successes blindly or crassly in thoughtless imitation, or a type of innovation which is distant (do not read transcendent) from the world. This, then, is not the work of an artist.

Tradition, I: How to be Timely

“Yet, if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition. Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it  by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.”

T. S. Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent. I.

Art of All Good Kinds

A few recent posts from the Circe Institute blog, conversations with my husband, and a hope to finally begin this site have had me mulling over my own opinions of art appreciation.

Professing Christians today often fall into one of a few camps when it comes to the arts: Camp A says we only accept what is explicitly Christian and/or what is morally acceptable on the surface (i.e., no foul language, sex, or gore, etc.). Camp B says no, no, no, we must love the world, and to do so we must engage with the culture, and in order to do that we must know their music and their dance and their tv shows and anything else that might give an in. Camp A calls back with cries of assimilation, and so goes the conversation.

My problem with both of these camps is simply that neither is really about art. I like art. I like oil paintings. I believe poetry to be one of the greatest possessions of humankind. I have spent my life pursuing the study, expression, appreciation, and teaching of music. I like art because it is good. Or, rather, it can be good.

Art ought to be good. I believe any good art is worth my time. I believe good art is deeply helpful to any society. I believe art is an integral part of being human. In all its forms, art has a capacity to communicate truth—and to communicate about truth—in powerful, comprehensive ways. Good art does so in a manner that is beautiful, powerful, transcendent, and accessible.

In this vein, I stand believing Christians ought to be thoughtful consumers of art. Is there high art that is hostile to the gospel? Yes. Is there poor art marketing only on its stamp of Christian approval? Yes. Both should be avoided, both for the sake of the gospel.

There is a Camp C who, weary of the first two, determine only to attend to old art. Often art of the past is seen as more innocent or at least less explicit (though this is quite a rose-tinted view of the past), or as already tested for its goodness by time and thus proven worthy of a look. I understand the compulsion, but would warn against its limitations.

To prioritize the good is not necessarily to prioritize the old, but to transcend the narrower categories of age and region to serve a greater desire for quality: being that which is compelling, true, beautiful, articulate and substantial.

Be grounded in your tradition, be steeped in the art and artifact that has stood the test of time and glean what good may be had from the those gone before us, but do not forgo the opportunity to continue what is beautiful, good, and true now. Do not snub the whole of expression of your time and place as illegitimate until proven timeless. What do you have to lose? Listen to Bach and Dry the River. Read Augustine and Eliot, but also Marilynne Robinson and Mark Wunderlich. Why? Because it is good. Because it is art. Because the human expression of your time and place ought to have bearing on your life. To assume that the prioritization of good art necessitates an ignorance of anything produced in the last century is to doom your own generation.

More to come.