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.) 

A Taxonomy of Tired Tropes

If life imitates art, we’d do well to be careful what we put on our canvases.

Yet, at times, every artist is guilty of being a bit slapdash or lazy in their approach to their craft. How often do you find yourself groaning at a trite “truism” while reading a poem? Or rolling your eyes when an overused trope is rolled out again in a novel you’re reading?

To be truly exceptional, we must learn to write as writers and edit as readers. This means eliminating the tiresome, worn-down shortcuts we’ve taken in our writing process.

As a cautionary exercise, I think it would be fun to maintain a list of platitudes, thematic cliches, and tropes that are over-used. Some examples might include the following:

– Writing scenes in which a character looks at her reflection in the mirror and pores over every detail of her appearance. This is often used as a shortcut to having to deftly work in physical descriptions. Cut it out.
-“The moon” used ad nauseum in poetry
-A man who is denied justice by the usual channels, so he starts taking vengeance into his own hands.
-A nerdy, girl-next-door type gets a makeover and becomes irresistible to her crush.
-A former criminal tries to walk the straight and narrow, but is reluctantly dragged back into “one last big job.”

What examples do you have to add? Any scenario irk you in particular?

I leave you with the following quotation from the poet Gérard de Nerval: “The first man who compared a woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile.

Book Recommendation: Sithrah

A huge “thank you” to Kingdom Art, for recommending an absorbing, smart, gorgeously-designed graphic novel called “Sithrah.”

“Sithrah” is about a 7-year-old girl who is involved in a plane crash while on vacation with her father. The crash has a domino-effect, plunging her into a enigmatic adventure where she encounters a rebellious anti-hero named Dino and spirits who are bent on deterring her from finding her father. Along the way, she’s helped out by a mysterious spirit guide called a “Sithrah.”

From the get-go, the plot of this story is engaging. There are deep spiritual truths embedded throughout the graphic novel, but the message never feels heavy-handed or sanctimonious. The narrative arc is snappy and the world-building is phenomenal. Each page is imbued with breathtaking, vivid scenes which are expertly drawn and colored.

It’s no surprise that this graphic novel was met with critical acclaim. The author is Jason Brubaker, who formerly worked for Dreamworks Animation. He quit that job in order to create “Sithrah.”

You can read the entirety of “Sithrah” for FREE here.

With that said, you should absolutely purchase the physical copies of this piece of art. The first three “books” are available on Amazon (just search “Sithrah,”) and his fourth installment is currently receiving funding on Kickstarter here. He’s already reached his funding goal, and the estimated release date is October 2018.

To see more of Jason Brubaker’s work, check out his website Coffee Table Comics.

I greatly appreciate Kingdom Art for the wonderful recommendation. Check out the Kingdom Art site to see some pretty amazing artwork. (Commissions are currently open, too!)

Profanity and Clichés: Perhaps They’re Cousins

In A Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L’Engle shares a thought-provoking anecdote about a lecture she once gave at a university. In her discourse, she discussed the perils of American consumerism. At one point, L’Engle, who was a committed Christ-follower, planned to state sharply that consumerism has “screwed us over.”

Upon delivery of the sentence, however, L’Engle didn’t get the response she expected. She tells us in her book that no one appeared particularly surprised or moved that she had used what was (in her mind) a pretty crass and blunt way of communicating.

The word was commonplace. It’d lost all meaning and fell flat.

And in my opinion, this is the true crux of the problem we confront as writers, choosing whether to insert a four-letter word or fall back on the hackneyed statements such as “muttered profanities under her breath” or “yelled obscenities unworthy of print here.”

Poets and novelists, of all people, should understand that language wears out. Sentences have a shelf-life. If sentimental statements are used too often, they run the risk of becoming saccharine. And if a cliché is overly sweet, it’s sure to spoil, regardless of the truth it reflected, initially.

In the same way, “bad words” decay over time. We’ve all met individuals that have used “the F-word” as every known part-of-speech. What’s worse is when such words become disfluencies, taking the place of filler words such as “uh,” “um,” and “er.”

The net effect of both these examples is a devaluing of language. Writers and orators fall back on old chestnuts, platitudes, and thoughtless cuss words.  Perhaps, in some way, clichés and curse words are kin, both indicating an abuse of language.

If you’ve ever heard a friend whose language was typically very reserved and conservative utter a “curse word,” you’ve probably noticed you go on high alert. Likely, the hair on the back of your neck stood on end as you asked yourself what could’ve affected this person so deeply that caused them to reach for such a potent word.

It’s my belief that as a writer, we should treat unsavory language in a similar way. We ought not to abuse language. Cuss words, at worst, are profane, low-class, and utterly meaningless. But utilized intentionally in the mouths of our characters, these words can serve a purpose—illuminating a character’s inner turmoil or most heartfelt convictions.

Christ-followers would do well to remember that “risqué words” are even present within Scripture. From Saul calling Jonathan a “son of a perverse and rebellious woman,” to the erotic poetry of Song of Solomon to Paul’s use of the Greek word “Σκύβαλον,” (which translates closely to “the s-word,” Source. ) it seems that the Lord didn’t shy away from strong language to prompt an emotional response in readers.

So how do we reconcile this truth with the fact that in James 3:10, we read, “Praising and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers, these things should not be this way.” (HCSB.)

The nucleus of the question comes down to motives. In the context of James letter, he’s admonishing us as believers to not curse fellow humans. Similarly, as writers, we ought to look toward the reasoning behind our own inclusion of such words. Are we attempting shock-value without redemptive purpose? Are we seeking to glorify God through the story arc and development of a particular character?

We worship a God who refuses to white-wash. He does not sentimentalize or use padded language to euphemize the wrongdoings of humans. In Scripture, he didn’t tend to edit or censor the stories of wayward people. Rather, he transformed their souls. With the Lord’s help, may our writing do the same.

Misquoting Augustine

Once, in my college years, a couple friends and I grew tired of the mush they served in our cafeteria and we headed to Krispy Kreme Donuts. It was a golden October day, and we wove through traffic while listening to music with the windows down.

As we drove along, a song came through the car’s stereo that called into question whether God exists or whether He is good. I’d expect to hear a song like this among friends who aren’t disciples of Christ, but on this particular friend’s playlist? I knew that she was a Christ-follower.

“Hey, what’s with this song?” I asked. “It’s pretty dark.”

“Oh, yeah.” She was a little defensive. “It’s a little negative. But it’s how the singer feels, and it’s honest. You know what they say, ‘all truth is God’s truth.’”

This is a prevailing rallying cry for many artists who profess to be Christ-followers. It sure sounds right. If it’s an honest feeling…how can you discard it? Aren’t we as disciples of Jesus supposed to be enamored with genuine, truth-telling art?

It’s worth looking into the origins of the catch-phrase “all truth is God’s truth.”

The popular expression is actually a modernization of a line from St. Augustine. In his treatise, “On Christian Doctrine,” Augustine writes: “Nay, but let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master…”

“All truth belongs to God.” It’s a pithy little maxim, and undoubtedly true. But many who hold on to this gem from Augustine tragically miss the context in which he wrote. Indeed, it’s conceivable that many people who use Augustine’s quotation don’t even know that it was him who said it.

Perhaps the most vital statement came in the second half of Augustine’s sentence:

…and while he recognizes and acknowledges the truth, even in their religious literature, let him reject the figments of superstition, and let him grieve over and avoid men who, ‘when they knew God, glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.’

Augustine understood that all truth belongs to God. But while deftly invoking the book of Romans, he also pinpointed a common error we can fall into, lest we’re discerning: If we focus wholly on fragmented “truths” without getting around to glorifying God, we’re only exercising our own pride.

So how does that play out in the actual creation of art?

I think as artists who are followers of Christ, we have two great responsibilities: 1.) to glorify God through our craft, by carefully directing others to Christ and not ourselves, and 2.) ensuring the presentation of such a message is artful, beautiful, and meaningful. The latter responsibility is a difficult one, and of paramount significance. But make no mistake, these responsibilities are numbered in order of importance.

In my opinion, falling short of these responsibilities can take on two different forms, both equally dangerous: Some artists lead others astray through their art (a sin of commission) and some artists fail to glorify the Lord through their art (a sin of omission.)

When writers, musicians, or artists dwell on thoughts or philosophies that are not glorifying to God, they commit a grave mistake. I believe this was the case in the instance of the band that was playing through the speakers in my friend’s car. The lyricist who penned that song would do well to remember what became of Job’s friends, who urged him to “curse God and die,” because they thought the Lord was not benevolent.

A good methodology for determining what content we should include in our art is Philippians 4:8, which reads “Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise—dwell on these things.” (HCSB)

It’s pretty easy to rule out things that aren’t true, honorable, just, pure, lovely and commendable. But the good news is that the things that these attributes do encompass are limitless. Does your 500-page epic sci-fi novel address topics of justice? Put it on paper. Does your painting showcase the pure creativity the Lord has endowed you with? Then paint it. Is your sestina, which reflects on an aspect of human nature, lovely and commendable? Write it down.

If we create something beautiful, but fail to direct others towards the truth and love of Jesus Christ, we’re only giving them part of the truth. Benjamin Franklin famously wrote in Poor Richard’s Almanack, “Half the truth is often a great lie.”

Unfortunately, this plays out in the music industry time and again. If a “Christian band” achieves mainstream success, their lyrics are often called into question. Any oblique references to Christ or the gospel seem to be quickly abandoned.

Many musicians stated that they don’t prefer to use the “Christian band” moniker, because they feel it excludes certain audiences, and there’s certainly an argument to be made for that belief. However, if artists are unwilling to mention the Lord in their lyrics, interviews, or personal interactions with fans, they are likely not using their music as a vehicle for ministry.

Christ-honoring art needs to contain both compelling, well-crafted, beautiful messages, and point others, in some way, to the glory of God. With the Lord’s help, may we tell the whole truth–God’s truth–through the art we create.