9 April, 2014
"My father painted like Cézanne and understood the southern French landscape the way Cézanne did. His vision of the world was sane, full of balance, full of veneration for structure, for the relations of masses and for all the circumstances that impress an individual identity on each created thing. His vision was religious and clean, and therefore his paintings were without decoration or superfluous comment, since a religious man respects the power of God’s creation to bear witness for itself. My father was a very good artist."1 — Thomas Merton
Thomas Merton is a theological ninja, able to slip in undetected and drop an amazing thought before anyone realizes he’s done it. It’s what makes him both profound and fun to read. I mean, just read the quote again. See?
The idea that creation bears its own witness is critical for the religious-minded artist. At least, it should be. It would be easy for me to tear apart “Christian” art with this one idea/weapon. I won’t speak for other religions here (you shouldn’t do that anyway, generally), but I have enough life lived in the Christian experience to say that it’s fraught with the desire to dress up what need not be, to create art that explains, rationalizes, and demystifies the divine life. Unfortunately, that’s unnecessary at best and spiritually harmful at worst.
People want to make things which reflect their experiences in the world; that’s what art is. In the process of shaping, molding, and recreating our encounter with the created, it’s easy to get lost in the desire to pile on too much. We want to show others what we see, to drive them deep into the heart of what is or was meaningful to us. Merton is asking us to step back, to pause and let what is powerfully and beautifully created speak for itself. This doesn’t mean we can’t try to represent it in our own way. Rather, seeking to be a good artist, especially one with an eye towards the divine, means letting what is true hover as close to the surface of our work as possible. Quit covering up beautiful stuff, dammit.
When we equate being a good artist with “respecting the power of God’s creation to bear witness for itself” as Merton does, we’re giving ourselves a wonderful cosmology in which God infuses all that is, in which God is Being itself2, calling the created world in such a way as to drive our participation in it. This is why trying to separate Christian art from the rest gets murky; it can all be Christian if it allows the Word an opportunity to speak clearly. It can all be religious. It can all be an expression of our being in the world, our belonging to Being (though just because it can doesn’t mean it will). If it’s good art, it’ll tell us something true, something about what it means to be alive and engaged with a created world in which all things are becoming. And if it’s really good art, it’ll bear witness.
2 April, 2014
Carl Sagan was an American astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, philosopher, and poet. Sagan spearheaded a project to affix a golden phonograph record to the Voyager I and II spacecraft.
The craft were launched in 1977 to study the planetary systems of Jupiter and Saturn. This primary mission was complete three years after launch, but to this day they continue to transmit and receive instructions from scientists on Earth.
Sagan and a committee of his associates selected the contents of the records carried into interstellar space by Voyager I and II. The disks record, to the best of our ability, the breadth and depth of human experience, art, culture, environment, and emotion. The records contain 115 images, sounds of surf, wind, birds, thunder, and waves, music across time and cultures, and the audio recordings of fifty-five spoken languages. In the event the Voyager spacecraft encounter extraterrestrial beings – or perhaps far-future humans – the disks stand as a record of those who launched the craft into space.
This may be a foolish project. That the craft would cross the heliopause out of the solar system and into the interstellar medium was not a foregone conclusion. Until recently, there was debate as to whether an object could cross the turbulence created by solar winds and interstellar winds colliding.
Thanks to Voyager I, we know it is possible. But that we know the position and course of the craft at all is thanks to a mixture of luck or providence, and a major helping of engineering skill. Voyager I remains functional long after its intended use. Its primary mission ended thirty-four years ago. Though its extended mission has expanded greatly the limits of human knowledge of the solar system and beyond, in time Voyager I and II will be lost to us.
However, thankfully, Carl Sagan’s gold records will remain as a testament to our hope that we may speak collectively to the stars or, perhaps, to ourselves.
I had a dream last night in which all of my favorite people from Vanderbilt, including professors, met in Barcelona. We were in Barcelona for one night for a long dinner. This dream was not in color but the table was lit by the warm glow of candlelight. Somehow everyone fit around one table and even though it was very large everyone could participate in a single conversation. My friend’s faces were radiant, happy, loving. We ate and drank and laughed. We talked about theology and art and life and I woke up crying.
Mark and I put up our posts, tweet about them, retweet each other, and paste links on Facebook. Then we check Google Analytics and: 13 unique views. Oh, great.
We look at our work and say to each other, “this is pretty decent stuff, wish more people would read it.” Now and then we get a few more readers, and that’s generally when someone with a big network posts a link. That’s great. Feels good. But then it isn’t the work itself that’s getting attention; what’s operating is the intimacy people feel for some guy on Facebook.
A question I should probably ask: is the work good? I think so. Mark thinks so. People I respect tell me they enjoy reading the Beard. But these people are often also a close friend. They bring to their reading a fondness the writing may or may not deserve. Or they’re my mom. So I don’t trust it.
I’m pretty confident our subject matter is the problem. I often think, blogging screeds about phones or politics or how to hack your toothbrush to record calories burned while watching Netflix or whatever would be a lot easier. Instead our focus is often ourselves, and the self as a lens through which to view the world. I can’t speak for Mark but if you knew how often the genesis of a post was me thinking, “that’s bullshit,” I would be pretty embarrassed.1 Other times a post is focused on a very particular facet of a little known theological tradition and a broad audience is out of the question.2 Of course this is to be expected given the education Mark and I share. But then a bit ago I was writing about poor people and the bible, which I thought might get some clicks. But how many people care about poor people? Hardly any, in my experience.
I’m not apologizing. I tell myself the work itself is worth doing, even without an audience. And I can almost believe that. I do think our subjects are worth thinking and writing and reading about. I think more people should think and write and read about them. I think fewer pixels should be lit on the subjects of new phones and hacking your stupid life as if the blessed miracle of human being and becoming is some gadget.
If I’m so convinced the posts we write should have more eyeballs on them, maybe I should become an absolutely shameless huckster. Who cares if the Facebook guy’s followers never take a look at the byline? Just get some eyeballs on it! But I am unwilling or unable to dance that jig. The work ought to stand on its own merits, oughtn’t it? Unless there’s no one to judge its merits. Then it just stands there.
Shut up, Grace.
It’s amazing how quickly my stupid mouth listens to my stupid brain. Especially when it comes to the reduction of the other. Especially especially when social media gets involved.
This morning, I had a Twitter conversation with a friend. First note: don’t do that. Twitter has practically no room for nuance, it isn’t built that way, so trying to say something meaningful to another person is going to be difficult. Second note: if you’re going to do that, you better put on your generosity pants, because it’s gonna get real at some point. Because of the first thing.
It started with an observation, went quickly to debate, and then at some point I stopped recognizing my friend as someone I loved and replaced that person with the image of someone out to get me, out to hurt me. I responded in kind by lashing out with non-sequitur jabs and a childish, reactionary stance. I was called out for it, realized my error, apologized, and now we’re good (so you can stop holding your breath).
It immediately struck me how quick I’d been to go low, to strike out at someone I care for out of a sense of self-protection and hurt. It’s an old, old story. We all know it by heart. So why do we keep participating in it, keep propagating it? Because we’re broken. Because life is a turd sandwich. Because it’s easy to scowl at the taste of it and forget how wonderful our loving relationships with others can be when we let them fill us with their intrinsic beauty and worth.
This is the cycle of grace. We harm, are convicted of our wrong, are loved regardless, and feel the urge to love better and more fully despite knowing exactly how we will harm again. The scary truth is, this cycle has the potential to play out countless times per day. I went through the whole thing before 10 a.m. But this is our duty and privilege when it comes to those we encounter: see them for who they are, not for how they benefit you, not for how they might wound you, and not for how you perceive your wounds or their part in them. I forgot that for a few minutes with someone who matters greatly to me when I made them “less than” by guarding myself with mean-spirited humor. I did it in the guise of attacking their argument, when I was clearly attacking them. We are people, and this is what we do. Knowing that we do it will not keep us from it. So we trust in grace to move us forward, deep into the arms of the other who can smile and forgive and show us the love we could not, would not, show.
Take care of each other, folks. And when you don’t, try again.