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.)