Talking Shop: Dead to Oneself; Alive to the Work

by Daniel R. Jones

I’ve enjoyed the work of Wendell Berry for quite some time. His books often exist at the confluence of multiple topics: conservation, agriculture and husbandry, poetry, and his own faith. Berry is the son of a lawyer, and perhaps as a result, he always writes with crystal-clear diction. He is also a farmer, and so he writes with that archetypal hint of familiarity and down-to-earth warmth. 

Recently, while reading A Small Porch, which includes both poetry and an essay on the topic of Nature (with a capital “N,”) the following passage leapt out at me:

How does an instructive poem instruct? The answer seems obvious – by containing something worth knowing – but there is one condition: It must teach without intending to do so. In support of this I offer a sentence by Jacques Maritain, who said of the cathedral builders: “Their achievement revealed God’s truth, but without doing it on purpose, and because it was not done on purpose. The point, I believe, is what the cathedral builders were doing on purpose was building a cathedral. Any other purpose would have distracted them from the thing they were making and spoiled their work. Teaching as a purpose, as such, is difficult to prescribe or talk about because the thing it is proposing to make is usually something so vague as “understanding.”

And later,

Just so, an honest poet who is making a poem is doing neither more nor less than making a poem, undistracted by the thought even that it will be read. Poets, or some poets, bear witness as faithfully as possible to what they have experienced or observed, suffered or enjoyed, and this inevitably is instructive to anybody able to be instructed. But the instruction is secondary. It must be embodied in the work.

I believe there is a truth to be gleaned about the Christ-follower as a co-creator here. 

The cathedral-builders described by Maritain bring to mind Bezalel and Oholiab, the namesakes of this website. Those men were described in Scripture as “filled with God’s Spirit, with wisdom, understanding, and ability in every craft to design artistic works…” (Exodus 31:1-5, HCSB.)

I believe what Wendell Berry is after here is that as artists, we are often better able to reveal truth— God’s truth – by getting lost in what we are doing. Rather than following a step-by-step, prescribed process, we are better able to accomplish our artistic vision by, well, forgetting about it.

This might sound a little mystical. Maybe it is. But put simply, I think it cuts to the heart of where many of us go wrong when we try to create a “Christian poem,” or a “Christian painting,” etc. I believe a lot of creatives who love Jesus sit down, and say to themselves, (maybe not in so many words,) “I am going to create something beautiful with a Christ-honoring message. I’m going to create something edifying, with a definite moral.” 

And to be clear, this is a noble goal. 

But sitting down with a pre-meditated intention for the theme of your work is rarely the bet way to accomplish that goal. Most art can’t be reverse-engineered in this way: picking first the desired effect you’d like to make on your audience, then choosing the theme accordingly, dressing it in a plot, and finally adding in characters and dialogue. Such approaches to art can stifle the life out of the work. At very least, they certainly deprive it of its mystery. The end-result often falls flat.

In a thought-provoking conversation published in the New Yorker, Berry paraphrases the artist David Jones, saying “to be dead to oneself is to be alive to the work.”

Call it self-abandonment. Call it getting “lost in the moment.” Call it the dissolution of ego.

Whatever you call it, there’s a recurring notion that high-caliber, Christ-honoring art is less about meticulously checking off a prescribed list of boxes to shoehorn a creative work into the category of “Christian art” and more about seeing the work through to its completion—staying true to the work at hand. The final product is often an homage to the Creator, unquestioningly glorifying Him, anyway. 

In a sentence, art that glorifies God most often comes out of a natural overflow of who we are in Him.

I think Wendell Berry’s word serves as a good reminder: Let’s get out of our own way. In so doing, we may succeed in not only creating better art, but also accomplish that loftier goal stated by John the Baptist: “He must become greater; I must become less,” (John 3:30 NIV.) 

Talking Shop: Five Reasons Madeleine L’Engle’s ‘YA Books’ Succeeded

Those with even a cursory knowledge of my literary preferences will recall my fondness for the late Madeleine L’Engle

My first brush with L’Engle came when I picked up a beat-up paperback copy of A Wrinkle in Time in fourth grade. At that time, L’Engle’s books expanded my consciousness, creating in me a yearning for more–spiritually, creatively, and academically.

C.S. Lewis once credited the acclaimed Scottish author George MacDonald with “baptizing his imagination.” Throughout my childhood, L’Engle had a similar effect on me. I felt so indebted to Madeleine L’Engle for her numinous, soul-searching prose, that I named my only daughter “Madeleine.”

A week or so ago, I decided to pick up a book by L’Engle which I haven’t previously read. The book is titled The Arm of the Starfish. I was hesitant, because the book is filed squarely in the “Young Adult” section of the library. 

I’ll admit my bias. I tend to dislike most books that can be categorized as “YA.” for reasons that will soon be apparent. In short, I find most books in the genre lacking–both in substance and in any modicum of literary merit.
It’s an established fact that L’Engle hated when critics panned her work as “juvenile.” She famously quipped, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”

Still, I approached the book with a little trepidation. I didn’t want to return to an author that I cherished so deeply for so many years and become ultimately disappointed that I’d outgrown her. I feared being disillusioned.

Ultimately, out of respect for L’Engle’s perspective, and her phenomenal track-record in my reading history, I decided to give this YA-novel a chance. 
What I found, to my relief, was a tightly-knit, cosmopolitan spy-novel that did anything but disappoint me. 

As I set the book down, I reflected a little on why L’Engle’s YA worked where so many others have failed. How is it that her books stood up, not only to the test of time, but also to the test of the audience aging?

I came up with the following five reasons:

1.She never shied away from “grown-up” topics.

In The Arm of the Starfish alone, L’Engle deftly navigates topics as complex as nationalism, the thalidomide disaster of the late 50s and early 60s, the Spanish Inquisition, and deep-seated theological issues. 

In the hands of a less capable writer, such a diverse survey of topics would quickly turn glib and disingenuous. L’Engle manages to explore these topics with aplomb, always rejecting an easy explanation.

2.Conversely, she didn’t resort to shock tactics. 

Without slinging mud at any particular authors, “YA lit” (writ large) often acts as a taxonomy on “edgy” or “controversial” subjects, such as teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, self-harm, etc. 

While there’s certainly nothing wrong with addressing any of these topics for a younger audience, it’s often handled in a clumsy way, detracting from any real message and instead promoting controversial content for the sake of controversy. 

L’Engle’s doesn’t shy away from pushing the envelope, but it never feels contentious for the sheer purpose of bolstering sales.

3. She whetted the appetite of her readers.

Madeliene L’Engle was a walking, talking Liberal Arts education. Her works are replete with allusions to science, medicine, history, philosophy, mythology, linguistics, literature, theology, art, and music. 

In The Arm of the Starfish, L’Engle alludes (among other things) to the Tallis Canon, Jackson Pollack, and the Greek myth of Diana and the Golden Apples. She utilizes Robert Frost’s poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” as both a secret-code and a theme interwoven throughout the book. The subject-matter of the book delves into the topic of marine-biology: both real and speculative.

In every instance mentioned above, regardless of the topic, L’Engle instills in her readers the desire to learn more. Inspiring your audience to dig deeper into the humanities is a hallmark of great literature.

4. She never condescended to her readers. 

L’Engle had an impressive command of language, and she didn’t let the fact that she was writing for a young audience dissuade her from putting it to use. In The Arm of the Starfish alone, she writes in four languages: English, conversational Spanish, tidbits of Portuguese, and Koine Greek. 

Most of the words and sentences she employed can be understood through context clues, but in some examples (such as the “Phos Hilaron” hymn in the original Greek,) she requires her readers to do a little research outside of the pages of her own work to uncover the meaning and origins of the text. 

L’Engle never felt the need to “dumb down” her vocabulary on account of her younger audience, either. She used words like “echinoderms,” “anagogical,” “desultorily,” and “porcine.” 

She gave her younger readers the benefit of the doubt: if they didn’t know a word, they could look it up in a dictionary.

5. She weaves all of the above nimbly into a well-told story.  

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, all of the above points are wrapped up into a well-plotted, breezy narrative. The net effect of reading one of her novels is that you ruminate deeply while simultaneously enjoying a great-read. Or, as she puts it while alluding to Frost, “your avocation and vocation become one.”

In so doing, L’Engle crafts dense, imaginative, sprawling concepts into tightly-packed, well-resolved stories. Regardless, even, if her books include the “YA” moniker. 

There is no godless art

“There is no godless art. Although you love not the Creator, you shall bear witness to Him creating His likeness.” -Gabriela Mistral

The quotation above is from the Nobel-prize-winning Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, and it’s been bouncing around my head for the past few days. It comes from the brilliant poem “Decalogue of the Artist.” 

Besides the obvious nod to the Ten Commandments (in both formatting and title,) the poem serves as a tantalizing intersection between faith and art.

The question that I can’t seem to wrap my head around regarding the aforementioned line is this: “Do I really agree? Is there truly no godless art?

“All truth is God’s truth,” yes? St. Augustine certainly thinks so. 

By proxy, I can’t readily imagine any truth–whether it’s math-related or scientific or historic–being described as “godless.”The idea of a godless truth seems paradoxical.

But somehow, it’s easier to imagine a “godless art.”

Maybe it’s because it’s easy to find examples of breathtaking “art” that I vehemently disagree with. I’ve grappled with artwork that was out-and-out riveting, but seemed to me devoid of truth or “godless.” After all, didn’t Oscar Wilde say “Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art?”

I believe the truth that Gabriela Mistral is so eloquently unearthing is a little more nuanced.

The first sentence I quoted from Mistral is quickly put into context by the second one: “Although you love not the Creator, you shall bear witness to Him creating His likeness.” Even those who aren’t in sound spiritual standing with the Father are capable of reflecting some of his attributes.

A writer who is godless in his theology can still reflect the awe-inspiring wit of God. The painter who eschews Scripture is still able to portray the grandeur of His work in a landscape painting. Indeed, as the tenth item on Mistral’s decalogue states, “Each act of creation shall leave you humble, for it is never as great as your dream and always inferior to that most marvelous dream of God which is Nature.”

There are artists who reflect the glory of God willingly. There are others who do so reluctantly. There are still others who are dragged kicking and screaming into reflecting the Image of God through their work.

But whether an artist is a willing participant or not, if they are co-creating with God, they are reflecting an aspect of His nature.

One could argue, “I don’t recognize God! My only aim is to create something emotionally resonant.” But who created humankind—and who governs what resounds in their souls but the Creator of their souls?

A person might say, “Some of the greatest literary minds were antithetical to the message of the cross.” That may be, but where the content of their passages may not reflect God, the cleverness of their form can’t help but bear witness to a Supreme Intelligence.

All art is derivative. Every artist is the progeny of one or more artists. If you could dig into this family tree of imagination, you would invariably find that all creative acts trace back to the Creator Himself.

Scripture tells us “Every good and perfect gift is from above.” (James 1:17)

So, no, there is no godless art. Some art reflects a more full-bodied truth of God’s personhood, while some only reflects select parts of his characteristics. But a creative work with any noble aspects, inherently, cannot be godless.