:: long story short ::
I have yet to meet somebody who, deep down, wanted to become something other than a good person. Or at least a good citizen. Though I’m directing this post at the Christians in the room, I think anyone will find it valuable if they swap out “Christian” for “good citizen” or “good human being,” because that’s a huge part of what I mean when I say “Christian.”
For some time Christian artists in America have been strung up between two poles: fraud and infidelity. We must cut out both the con-man and the wanderer to create true, lasting art… as Christians. And for the person who fears Christian art as an atheist or Sikh – it’s time to recognize the neoplatonic base of Christianity, those forms like truth and beauty and integrity that undergird Christian thought. At very least, we can all agree on some basic truths such as what makes a good citizen.
These two thoughts – that good citizens make the best artists and that Christians struggle with fraud and infidelity – work like counterpoints, like discord and resolve, like a guide for Christians who want to make art and a haven for anyone terrified of this alleged “genre.”
Now, if you want to skip to the comments and start mulling this over, go ahead.
But I believe in long form blogging as well, so here’s the…
:: short story long ::
Two poles: fraud and infidelity. As I started out saying, all of us artists struggle with fraud – what some call “selling out.” And all of us struggle with periods infidelity or dishonesty – what writers call “block.”
Why do you think we struggle with selling out (or becoming hacks)?
And why do we get blocked?
“In the sixteenth century when everyone was saying that poets (by which they meant all imaginative writers) ought to ‘please and instruct,’ Tasso made a valuable distinction. He said that the poet, as poet, was concerned solely with pleasing. But then every poet was also a man and a citizen; in that capacity he ought to, and would wish to, make his work edifying as well as pleasing…. I want to use the distinction between the author as author and the author as man, citizen, or Christian. What this comes to for me is that there are usually two reasons for writing an imaginative work, which may be called Author’s reason and the Man’s. If only one of these is present, then, so far as I am concerned, the book will not be written. If the first is lacking, it can’t; if the second is lacking, it shouldn’t.”
– from C.S. Lewis’ Sometimes Fairy Tales May Say Best What’s To Be Said in “Of Other Worlds”
Christian artists become either frauds for lack of art or infidels for lack of Christianity. From their infidelity, they blend in. From their fraud, they strike terror in or invite mockery from their truly artistic colleagues. In either case, their art ceases to be distinctly Christian or distinctly art.
On the one hand, you have this grotesque beast of a thing called the “Christian” enterprise – t-shirts, music, Testa-mints and the rest of that godless mess you’ll find in any allegedly “Christian” bookstore. My mentor and teacher Mark Scott used to beg my classmates and me to never use the word “Christian” as an adjective. It’s a noun. Lewis often said something similar: when a word intended as descriptive suddenly becomes evaluative, it loses its meaning. Most recently, we have seen this effect upon the word “children” when applied to literature. Though “Songs of Innocence,” “Webster’s Dictionary,” and “Alice in Wonderland” all came out for children, we would not use the word “children” in a derogatory sense on any of them. Yet that’s exactly what modern literary people mean when they say, “children’s literature.” They don’t mean “literature written first with children in mind” but rather “literature in which free-thinking adults should not indulge.” This, obviously, is nonsense precisely because “children” is a noun and that noun represents something all of us once were – children are not some alien species.
When Christians do this, when they label physical items and specific substances as “Christian,” they end up speaking nonsense the moment they apply the title to themselves. They merely mean “those who buy these specific things” or “those who go to these specific buildings” or woefully worse “those who voted for this specific candidate.” Christian, in our culture, works as an adjective. By “Christian” books, most Evangelicals simply mean “those fit for purchase.”
Well that’s a truckload of horse crap and moonshine, I’ll tell you that right now. That’s the stuff the thought police say in every dictatorship and it was John Milton, a Christian, who brought about the modern alternative: the free press.
When your main reason for making art is to make money for your patron, and not to bring him honor and renown, it’s not that there will no longer be any good art. It’s that all art will work simultaneously as advertisement for some company or organization, and that’s a considerable step lower. When a business commissions you, rather than a person like a pope or a king, you’re a slave to that business. Much as some Christians pretend that Zondervan owns itself, it serves a higher master named Harper Collins who serves an even higher master named News Corp. Do with that what you will, but the fact serves our purposes: it explains the cause behind these drastic contradictions among the opinions of various “Christian” authors all published on the same press.
If the first reason – the desire to create true art – is lacking, especially when substituted for the desire to make a metric crapload of money, then art can’t really be created in the first place. Only a shadow of the thing can be created, anemic and smelling of vomit. That’s what you have with most Christian art – they’ve had this noun-made-adjective slapped on top of the box to sell more product towards the quarterly profit report of a higher master.
I reject “Christian” as an evaluative term. These business-patronized products are not art. They are a series of frauds.
Assuming we really want to make art, the second reason to create, then, would be to share with the world this goodness I find inside my core as a good man, good citizen, good Christian and so forth. Christian art, in this sense, describes the noun: art made by those who follow Jesus. We’ve also seen this lacking recently for, in a desperate attempt to carve out some space in the art world, my generation of artists has completely removed several filters from their desire to create. I’ll point to a quote from Langston Hughes:
“One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, ‘I want to be a poet–not a Negro poet,’ meaning, I believe, ‘I want to write like a white poet;’ meaning subconsciously, ‘I would like to be a white poet;’ meaning behind that, ‘I would like to be white.’ And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America–this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.”
– Langston Hughes “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” 1926
I’m currently on the third draft of my fourth novel. It’s called The Faceless, and it’s about a boy who is trying to find his identity in a world stripped of all anonymity. In a world like the one we live in, where a forty-year-old man can get publicly shamed for something he posted on a forum under a pseudonym way back when he was fourteen, it’s rather hard to feel brave about being yourself.
It’s a struggle I’ve had for years, actually, and I’m supposed to be a grown man. But the more I work with artists, the more that I realize I’m not the only one – most of us fear the consequences of our art in a world where books never go out of print and icons never fade.
American Christian artists, in particular, have wrestled with this for so long that they no longer believe in Christian art. They say it so often that it’s like some rite of passage if you hope to remain a Christian and continue making art. Like Langston’s friend who made a distinction between a poet and a negro poet, true artists who claim to follow Jesus find themselves saying “I want to be an artist – not a Christian artist,” meaning, I believe, “I want to create art like an anti-Christian artist,” meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be an antichrist artist;” meaning behind that, “I would like to be anti-Christ.”
And I, like Langston, am sorry for the artists who say that, for no great artist has ever been afraid to be himself. But this is the mountain of death standing in the way of any true Christian art in America – a country far too young to boast a true riding crop of Christian art, far too young to have harvested its Rembrandts and Mozarts, its Dantes and Miltons. You can make the rest of the appropriate parallels to Langston’s quote yourself, but for now it’s enough to know that this line of thinking cripples would-be Christian artists and turns them into antichrists on the altar of art. If we are to have our Rembrants, we must first walk through that valley that lies in the shadow of the mountain named Death of Fidinsecurity; Death of Our Insecure Faith.
The same goes for anyone of any faith, really. Anyone afraid of writing about the virtues of good citizens, good people, i.e. the form called goodness.
The problem we have is twofold: we lack both the tool and the workspace. We lack a good reflective filter to figure out what it means to make art as a Christian in 2014 and we compound the problem when our workspace gets crowded with frauds. On the one hand, you have people who don’t really want to make art who then turn around, make tons of crap, and label it “Christian art” when they really mean “the international enterprise that profits from marketing aimed solely at Christians.” On the other, you have a reactionary crowd that, desperate for distinction, neuters that other, deeper reason: creating as a man or as a good citizen or especially as a Christian.
The broader problem, if you’re not a Christian, can be seen in how few of our current plots involve good citizens, good societies, good choices in general. Aristotle and Plato would be disgusted: the cornerstone of a good civilization is the forming of good, civil people.
And yet where have all our good, civil stories gone?
To be honest, we lost them through erosion: most of us choose nihilistic stories not because we believe this nihilistic ethic’s better, not even because we’ve thought through the implications of nihilism, but simply because the alternative to despair has been tethered to this terrible enterprise and crammed down our throats through half-baked “happily ever after” plots. The frauds have hijacked our happier stories and I think it’s high time to recapture the irony of joy. After all, it is the Christian who always predicates resurrection with crucifixion.
Our current “happily ever after” stories are trite not because a happy ending can’t achieve depth. They’re trite because the people telling those stories care little for the complexity of life communicated in art. They’re not interested in creating reflective moments. They’re not interested in the outward expression of inward relational thought. No, the stories are trite simply because they’re interested in making money and money is trite.
Assuming you care less about money and more about creating a reflective moment, about expressing a communal thought through art, then the second question you need to ask is this: what are you?
See we filter our desires all the time. Am I hungry? Yes.
Okay then, should I eat? No, I should wait for my wife to check her blood sugar.
The first is a question of impulse: yes, I’m hungry.
The second is a question of ethics – it is kind for me to wait for my wife. It helps her feel included.
Do I want to make art ?
(I’m assuming you also answer, “Yes”)
Now the other questions come:
Should I make art as a _____? [insert “man” or “citizen” or “Christian”]
It depends. Do you really believe in the meaning behind the thematic thrust of your story? Are you convinced of the message in your painting? Will dancing butt naked in Times Square really edify your neighbor?
Or, on the converse, will dancing butt naked really rebuke them of their materialism? The cynics were sometimes rebuked for such behavior, after all, even among their own ranks. The answer isn’t always “yes.”
- You get an idea, that’s the “can I make this?” side of art.
- But mulling over an idea, that’s the “should I make this?” side of art.
Stop making paltry tit-for-tat comparisons when the time comes for you to create. Start thinking like this: who am I?
I can’t answer for you, but I can answer for me:
- I have the urge to tell stories as a storyteller for the pleasure of readers. So: Is this idea art? Is it pleasing?
- I’m a man and want to express those stories in masculine ways – and I make a distinction between manly stories and manful The former attacks insecurity through false aesthetics like beards and MMA. The latter deals with the deeper forms behind manhood. So: Is this idea manful? Or is it passive and cowardly?
- I’m a citizen and hope to build up and seek the good of my city rather than tear it down. So: Will this idea help improve my neighbors?
- I’m a Christian and hope to serve the world by getting rid of myself, bearing fruit like love and joy and peace and humility. So: Will this idea serve others and make me a better human?
There are other ways to think through any given project, but this is a grid handed down from Aristotle to Tasso through Lewis and then to you and me.
If you’re not interested in art, don’t be a fraud and act as if you were. If you’re not interested in what you should create, then save yourself from being unfaithful to who you really are.
As an artist – a Christian artist – I believe that I’m a subcreator when I write a story, that I participate in the same kind of creative work that God himself undertook when He made us in His image. Do I hate God for making a world in which people swear? Or murder or gossip for that matter? People like all of my family and all of my friends?
Especially the ones who couldn’t give a rip about Jesus or social norms?
Well no, that would be stupid to hate God for such a thing. It’d be just as stupid to hate those people. God didn’t make a world full of nothing but rocks. He made one whose creation has climaxed in living, imaginative, willful beings that know how to love and hate alike. I don’t hate God for making a world where terrible things happen. Nor (when I’m at my best) do I hate the people who make them happen.
I just hate these terrible happenings, that’s all.
Art is honest: we’re trying to get at a truthful representation of this world and specifically the unseen parts of this world, not some shallow marketed fraud, in order to edify anyone who wants more peace, less war; more joy, less ambivalence; more love, less indifference in our world. But writing about reality is a bit rougher around the edges than writing about a tea party attended by stuffed animals. As Christopher Robin showed us, even stuffed animals cry.
You can see why it’s easy for me, as a Christian, to write stories in which the main characters say and do awful things even if I don’t do them myself. I follow a God who created a world in which people say and do awful things even though God doesn’t do them himself. I live in a world where awful things have been done to me and to the people I love. I myself have treated other people terribly. The difference is whether or not I glorify those terrible acts. Whether I worship terrible acts as ideals and aspirations, as the truest forms behind all that is.
To the same degree, if you’re a person who thinks violence is the answer and mass murders and gang rapes are beautiful things, who thinks we should all go weed out the handicapped from society, by all means live and create consistently with your ethics.
But I doubt you really believe all of that.
At least, I hope you don’t.
And if you don’t believe all of that, then where did that belief in the better, the truer, and that hatred of suffering come from? You might find your creativity’s as hypocritical as the hypocrites you’re supposed to be critiquing. Perhaps you’re as afraid to be yourself as I am in a world like this.
It is, in the end, for the fear of Christian art that many artistic Christians whisper renunciations of their Christianity.
It is also for the fear of Christian art that many Christian artists have turned into marketers and ecclesiastic pornographers.
But most of all, it is for the fear of Christian art that all other modern artists continue to make groundless claims about the goodness and beauty that remains, that persists, that thrives in this, our world of anguish: how a forest is mostly trees, not timber; how space is a womb bearing beautiful worlds, not black holes. The womb of the worlds is not barren, you know. I’ll ask again: how does the beauty thrive in this, our world of anguish?
Without true Christian art, there still awaits an infinite, supernatural void – a nameless face – standing between our inner Scrooge and his inner longing for this nameless one to “bless us, every one.”
That void can be filled, that nameless face met, but not by blazing new trails into fraud and infidelity. It’s better to know that source of blessing and bliss and having known, to grow my own personhood into the kind of face that can meet his face head-on. After we have faces, you and I may make whatever art we please. People will make fun of us, will even laugh at us I’m sure, but we need not fear the frauds, the cowards, or the critics because we have seen the Beholder through the eye of beauty.
And knowing is enough, regardless of who it is that mocks us:
“For Scrooge was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.”
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