The Shudder of the Miracle: Art as Conversion and Conversation

By Carolyn Weber

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Author Carolyn Weber explores art as Christian expression.

I participated in the David Festival in Port Perry, Ontario this past weekend, teaching a workshop on one of my favourite genres, the spiritual memoir. The David Festival describes itself as “A Celebration of Christian Worship through the Arts.” It is named for David in reference to his aim to praise God through his talents as a regular man, flawed and faithful, who was both shepherd and king. Here is a link to the festival, with a description of its wonderful events.

What is art? Such an age-old question! I think one way of understanding the import and impact of art is as a way of seeing things anew so as to participate in God’s redemptive plan for a broken world. God’s very first act in terms of how we understand our beginnings is the act of creation. As mimetic beings, “mimesis” having its roots in the Greek “to imitate,” we, too, seek to create.

As creatures made in His image, we also seek to make in His image. It is part of our being, an imprint of the divine in us, and integral to our dignity. At any moment, we can choose to create or destroy. This is the devil’s self-imposed prison: that he can only destroy, not create. For even destruction can be redeemed when in God’s hands, and when, by extension, used in the creative imagination of the artist of good faith.

In his Biographia Literaria, the Romantic philosopher, critic and poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously identified two levels or faculties in the human imagination – the primary and the secondary – each as an echo of the divine and yet differing in degree:

The primary Imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. (Ch. XII)

The secondary Imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate: or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead. (Ch. XIII)

In creation that seeks to glorify God, there is joy, delight, satisfaction, and a growing closer to the One who gives Life. This does not mean that art must be “pretty” or “pleasant,” or merely “fanciful,” but that when the creative imagination strives to rebuild and so, re-vision, it is invitational, provocative, and a tool for God’s redemption.

I agree with the statement made about art by IMAGO, a charity with a vision of promoting and advocating for the arts in Canada with respect paid to the truths of the Judeo-Christian tradition.  As their philosophy statement includes, art is an extension of hospitality, in that it “is characterized by a spirit of invitation – an offer to enter into another time and place to take delight, to discover, to see in a new way and sometimes to be changed.”

Art thereby becomes a place of conversation and conversion: two words, as I’ve mentioned before, that only differ by the insertion of where one is “at.” At the root of all conversation is prayer: for words distinguish us from everything else created, and it makes a mysterious sense that the Lord would come as Word among us, wisdom, and grace and truth, as well as give us His Word to live by, in our unique and special bond with our creator.

Art offers us a holy experience, as it moves us out of ourselves to engage the Other, the ultimate Other, whom Francis Schaeffer so poignantly identifies as God.

Without art, then, we necessarily shrivel and die to our humanity. Art is at once intensely personal and extensively communal. It echoes communion, too, for it connects us to the larger body of being human, and through it we experience something that defies description but which we can only most closely identify with as Christ: that unspeakable beauty, truth and power that was made temporal but skirts our understanding, and kites within our imagination. Faith itself takes creative imagination on this side of heaven, and by it we truly live.

When we make art from faith, when we make art to seek to believe more wisely, more deeply, more compassionately and preciously, we come alive: as individuals and as a society.

I have often thought that our current fascination with the “undead” such as vampires, zombies and the like is because we ourselves are the walking dead: a culture without knowing from whence we came, where we are going, or to Whom we belong.

We are captivated, as a result, by those who feed on mere blood, instead of the blood of Christ and all it represents. We are drawn to and imprisoned by the immortal as an endless suffering rather than to the freedom of eternity knowledge of Christ offers. Our heroes have become the anti-heroes, not only because they seem more attractive, eloquent, and ultimately to us fallen beings, identifiable, but because we do not know of any other better option. In our postmodern, postfeminist, post-symbolic world, we have grown wary of knights and cynical of journeys.

“Things fall apart/the centre cannot hold,” and so we lose our bearings and our worth in a money-driven world that conceives not of what “redemption” in God’s currency truly computes: grace fully paid for and freely given.

In the face of all this, art still calls out; it insists on blessing and being blessed. It cries for healing, and offers praise and thanks for the power received. Art challenges us to brush next to the holy robe, to feel the electric current of an immortality blessed, not cursed, travel through our own mortal bodies. Art gives us goose bumps of the best kind connected to a knowing of who Christ is and what He represents with a truth in “tears that do lie too deep for words.”

We can dismiss art all we want as non-religious, or as loosely “spiritual,” or even as a substitute for any kind of “orthodox” faith, but the touchstone remains: art illuminates the holy ground on which we stand.

Whether we call it by its name or not, whether we consciously label it “Christian” or whether we purposely reject such a label, the experience of experiencing art (as maker or as audience) changes us. Just like how God works through all things, whether we acknowledge Him or not, so we see His work at work through our work, even if we shun such “associations”. And isn’t that part of the shudder of the miracle? No wonder Jesus stood silent at his own final condemnation: in His embodiment as Word made flesh, in his coming as Emmanuel, what else was there to say?

Art says it for us. Art comes from our divine source and through our most divine impulse to bring us into deeper love, for each other and for ourselves. Art gives us this love by the necessity of moving us out of ourselves – a sort of ecstasy – ex-stasis, or standing outside of ourselves – and gives us God.

In this, there is deep hope and life-changing, perspective-giving worship.

In this, art is worthy of a festival to the glory of God indeed.

Carolyn Weber is an award-winning author, poet and professor. One of her memoirs, Surprised by Oxford, is her conversion story. Weber wrote “Coming Home as a Follower of Christ” for Faith Today. Weber blogs at www.pressingsave.com.

 

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