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.

Book Recommendation: The Princess and the Goblin

The Princess and the Goblin, by George MacDonald, is a decidedly peculiar book.

The children’s fantasy novel is Victorian through-and-through: it makes use of goblins, a good-natured monarchy, and a heroic working-class protagonist: Curdie, the miner.

It was published only seven years after Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and certainly a reader can easily draw comparisons between the two. Both appeal to the same demographic: middle-aged children who  find the miraculous amidst the tedium of every-day life. Both stories involve a heroine who is swept into serendipitous adventure. Neither girl was looking for said adventure.

As you progress through MacDonald’s story, however, you begin to notice some pronounced allusions to the spiritual world. Princess Irene stumbles upon her great-great (etc.) grandmother while exploring the labyrinthine passageways of her castle. Irene’s great grandmother seems to have a touch of the Divine–only some characters can see her, if they’re ready–but who or what she is exactly, remains undiscovered.

The Grandmother-figure gifts Princess Irene with a magic ring (fantasy readers may see parallels to the One Ring in Tolkien’s work) which is attached to a string that always leads Irene back to her Grandmother (and safety.)

What I love about MacDonald’s novel is that it is anything but heavy-handed. There are spiritual applications to be made, but he eschews allegory at every turn. Even for a book 147-years old, the tale took unpredictable twists.

Perhaps the best summation of George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin is told right from the get-go: “Every little girl is a princess,” he tells us, meaning that she’s a daughter of a King. He adds: “She’s always in danger of forgetting her rank.”

One can easily surmise that the string attached to Irene’s magical ring represents the spiritual life: sometimes it defies our understanding of the natural world. It is all but invisible. But if the wayfarer, and indeed the reader, walk by faith and not by sight, she’s sure to find her way.

Thank you, George MacDonald, for keeping us from forgetting our rank.

God has no Taste

I’d like to take this week to recall a gem from a Rich Mullins concert. The entirety of the performance can be dug up online, but I’ve transcribed the following excerpt because it particularly speaks to my condition:

I remember reading a thing that Picasso once said. I like to read what famous artists have to say because I’m barely able to look at their paintings without going into a coma trying to figure out what it’s about. But he said this one thing that I really did like. He said, “Good taste is the enemy of great art.” Which I think is very, very true. Good taste has all to do with being cultured and being refined and if art has to do with anything, it has to do with being human. And one of the reasons I love the Bible is because the humans in the Bible are not very refined. They’re pretty goofy if you want to know the whole truth about it.

I remember when I was a kid and people would always say—you know, because I was one of those typical depressed adolescent types. I wrote poetry and stuff. That’s how morose I was as a kid. People would go around saying, “Oh, cheer up, man. Because God loves you.” And I’d say “Big deal. God loves everybody. That don’t make me special. That just proves God ain’t got no taste.”

And I don’t think he does. Thank God.

‘Cause God takes the junk out of our lives and He makes the greatest art in the world out of it. If He was cultured, if He was as civilized as most Christian people wish He was, He would be useless to Christianity. But God is a wild man. And I hope that in the course of your life, you encounter Him. But let me warn you: you need to hang on for dear life. Or let go for dear life, maybe, is better.

A Case for the ‘Numinous’ in Literature

At nine-years-old, I started to fear going to church.

I didn’t mind going to Sunday School or Wednesday night prayer meeting. Rather, I was very specifically afraid of entering the sanctuary each Sunday morning at 8:00 a.m., as I’d done countless times before as the son of a preacher.

The feeling was new to me. Being a pastor’s son, I didn’t dare tell a soul. It was an incongruous emotion—why, now, after nine years of worship services, was I feeling trepidation as I sat beside my mother (a Sunday School teacher, herself,) in a hardwood pew?

I knew my locale had something to do with it. A year previous, my dad had accepted his new role as senior pastor at First Missionary Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and the change of scenery presented me with some elements of worship that I was previously unfamiliar with.

Though this new house of worship was within the same denomination as our previous church, there were still remarkably stark differences. Rather than singing “Shine, Jesus, Shine,” from slide projectors, we turned in our hymnals to “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” The worship leader might have mentioned the hymn number, but he didn’t need to; the congregants had already committed it to memory. Dark-stained pews and stained-glass windows lent a sense of reverence to the ambience of the sanctuary.

But over the last year, I’d noticed something deeper, somehow more surreptitious stirring below the surface each Sunday morning.

Why was it that I developed goosebumps on my forearms when the pianist thundered on the keys during “O, Holy Night?” How did the entire congregation know to rise to their feet at the exact moment the last verse of the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Händel’s Messiah began?

It seemed instantaneous and involuntary, like when each of the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention on their own accord when you are confronted by the presence of something utterly terrifying.

I continued on with my predicament, unable to talk to anyone about this mysterious fear that plagued me on a weekly basis. I hadn’t a clue what caused it. All I knew was that I could feel the presence of something or someone during the crescendos of certain worship songs, Sunday after Sunday, and it petrified me.

I tried to steel myself against this overwhelming, awe-inspiring emotion, lest my cheeks flush with blood and my knees buckle. I tried my level-best, at nine-years-old to not succumb to the odd, preternatural combination of terror and mystery.

What would happen if I gave in, and allowed myself to ascend over the pinnacle of this rush of emotion? Surely, the air at that peak was too thin and rarified for the lungs of a quavering, scrawny 9-year-old boy. Doubtless, the breath in my lungs would be sucked out and I’d be undone.

 

One Sunday, in what felt like an even split between voluntary and instinctive, I let go, and in my spirit embraced this mysterium tremendum et fascinans, that is, the “fearful and fascinating mystery.” I surrendered to a sense of the presence of God in worship, and felt a sense of ecstasy unlike any other emotion I can describe.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that feeling I felt at nine-years-old, the terror and mystery and finally, sublime joy of the moment, was defined almost one hundred years prior by a German theologian named Rudolf Otto.

In Otto’s book, which, in English, is titled, The Idea of the Holy, Otto describes an insidious change that came about over the years in relation to the word “holy.” He posits that prior to the idea of the “holy” being defined only in the moral, good vs. evil sense, it also encompassed a feeling of uncanny wonder at something wholly beyond ourselves. What’s more, the earliest people to encounter God in the Old Testament, such as Abraham, knew very little of what God deemed right or wrong because so little of the Law had been given at that time. As such, their understanding of holy perhaps depended more heavily on this sense of ethereal reverence than anything else.

It is good and natural that our definition of “holy” evolved as the progressive revelation of God’s plan became apparent. However, Otto wanted to reclaim this other side of holiness. In order to do so, he needed to coin a new term. He created the word “numinous.”

Otto summarizes his new term in this way: “…it will be useful, at least for the temporary purpose of the investigation, to invent a special term to stand for ‘the holy’ minus its moral factor or ‘moment’, and, as we can now add, minus its ‘rational’ aspect altogether” (Otto 6). In his book, he goes on to describe the feeling of the Wholly Other, in which we as humans experience a sublime emotion that surpasses comprehension and fills us with a sense of wonder.

Throughout the Twentieth Century, a good deal of ink has been spilled on behalf of the numinous—and it has come from the pens of some of our greatest thinkers. C.S. Lewis, the renowned novelist and Christian apologist, wrote about the subject at length in The Problem of Pain. Conversely, referring to his experiences while under the influence of the psychoactive drug mescaline, Aldous Huxley wrote about a crude approximation of the feeling in The Doors of Perception. Carl Jung applied the same concept to his studies of the role religion plays in psychology.

During the course of my life, I, too, became enamored with the idea of the numinous, even if I hadn’t, at first, known there was a word for it. I delved into literature and found my favorite writers have always toyed with this concept. Scattered across their pages, this all-encompassing, nebulous sense of wonder was nearly ubiquitous.

Curiously, this is true regardless of genre. It can be found in Sci-Fi: among the pages of the novel Childhood’s End or in the short story “The Nine Billion Names of God,” by Arthur C. Clarke. It’s present in the Fantasy Novel A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. It can be found in the mystical poetry of Rumi, or even “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry.

Whatever the form or genre, authors have taken a long, hard look at the intersection between the Divine and the human for centuries. Sometimes, this comes through a scene depicting literal confrontations with God. In other instances, it happens in a more oblique way: through encountering nature, or marveling at the vast infinitude of space. In either case, the concept of the numinous has had a profound effect on human thinking since the start of recorded history.

It is my earnest belief that in terms of emotions, there is no feeling more noble or exultant than the numinous. In Scripture, before Samson, the judge, was born, the Angel of the Lord visited his parents to give them specific instructions regarding the boy’s life. Manoah, Samson’s father, asks the name of the Angel of the Lord. His response is a question in and of itself: “‘Why do you ask my name,’ the Angel of the LORD asked him, ‘since it is wonderful,’” (Holman Christian Standard Bible, Judges 13:18). The Hebrew word for “wonderful” here is transliterated as “pili,” which is also rendered as “incomprehensible.” It’s nearly always used with the connotation of a perception that is too lofty for humanity’s grasp.

I believe that this statement by the Angel of the Lord alludes to (among other things) this sense of the numinous—the grandiosity of God which can’t be measured or condensed into a mortal’s understanding. Similarly, it’s mentioned in Solomon’s writings that God “has also put eternity in their hearts,” (Ecc. 3:11). This hints at the sense of yearning for the infinite that humankind is endlessly fixated upon.

And so, I’ve found, that since my first brush with the numinous as a nine-year-old in the pews of the burgundy, brick church, I’ve been preoccupied with the numinous—not just as part of a worship service, but also as a means of approaching God through writing. As I sit down to write, I’m constantly trying to scratch away at a paper-thin wall between myself and my Creator.

What you’ll read in my work is the culmination of that pursuit of God. My hope is that those who read these poems, stories, and essays will encounter a sense of the numinous, just as I, the writer did, while writing them. This feeling is not the destination in and of itself, but rather it serves to point us to a paradoxically intimate and transcendent God.

My hope is that through the written word, you will find yourself grappling with ruminations on what it means to be human, with your relationship with God, and with your interactions with those around you. And perhaps, somewhere along the line, you, too, will glimpse the numinous.