Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Novel as Sacred Art

On Monday, when Debbie wondered aloud - well, in print - why a person would create anonymously, I thought of Michelangelo's Pieta. It is the only sculpture he ever signed. He was twenty-four, a new, lesser-known artist.

Look at it - surely this was the most brilliant thing he had yet created, the work that would make him famous.

Can you see him hanging back, anonymous among the viewers, not many days past its unveiling? He listens to the chattered exclamations: Brilliant! Astonishing! The flesh so real it breaths. The emotion in Mary's upturned hand.

He smiles to himself. The crowd loves it. Loves him.

He wants to hear them say his name. He asks a passerby, "Who made this masterpiece?"

"I'm not sure," comes the reply. "But I think it is Cristoforo Solari."

"Oh yes," says someone else. "It is certainly Solari."

Perhaps that very day Michelangelo adds one last touch, a signature on the sash across Mary's chest:


Later he feels ashamed for having done it. It's 1498, and typically, sacred art is not signed. It exists to bring glory not to its creator, but to The Creator. It is an act of worship, and the artist's dearest hope is that it is a contagious act of worship.

Want a modern example of how such art can function?

The other five authors of this blog gave me a gift of The Four Holy Gospels, published by Crossways, illumined by Makoto Fujimura. I can't tell you how lavish, how beautiful it is - or how happy I am for this breakthrough in the Christian world's attitude toward art that can't be fully grasped in a microsecond.

Neither can I express what an experience it is to read. In Matthew, where John cries out in the wilderness, "Make his paths straight," Fujimura has painted three parallel lines in red and gold and blue dotting down the page - a straight path. That path continues on the following spread, but on the next one, when the Pharisees complain that Jesus is healing on the Sabbath, the three lines get tangled and fade to gray. A page later that gray becomes a chain where Jesus confronts the Gadarene demoniac. But then the demoniac is delivered, and the chain unravels to three straight lines in red and gold and blue.

Imagine how I meditated, page after page, on the meaning of that path. It affected me in ways I can't put to words. It made me worship.

Could you do that with a novel? Can a story be considered sacred art? I think it has been done, in novels where the theme, or as I've heard it put in workshops, "the takeaway," is something that can't be grasped in a microsecond. It's not about what the reader can "take away," its more about what he longs to give. It's not that coming to Jesus will put your life in order. It's that he is beautiful. He is poetry. He is holy, and wholly astonishing. Didn't our hearts burn within us? Who wants him to tidy our small worlds if we can follow into his explosion of grace?

We Christian writers are often uncomfortable being labeled as such. After all, we don't talk about Christian plumbers as if they should have their own section of the phone book. (Perhaps its that separate section of the bookstore that irks us most.)

What if we thought of our work as sacred art? Not a job we do like any working-stiff author, but an act of worship that can spark an epidemic? Wouldn't that lend a meaning to the words, "Christian Fiction" that we can embrace?"

I so want to see a new Renaissance. Isn't this the time?

Care to be part of it?

Please talk. We love to read what you have to say.


Susie Finkbeiner said...

Oh, my. I am left roundly inspired by this post.

You know, often I feel pretentious when calling myself a writer, and especially when the tag "artist" is put on me. Perhaps that comes from the moments I've used those labels to "toot my own horn". But the addition of "Christian" in the equation necessitates humility on my part. It implies that I can do nothing without the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that I write for a higher purpose, that I choose the sacred.

I am a flawed person, trapped in this miry flesh. But, I have been made in the image of a creative and artistic God...the AUTHOR of all things. And, so, like my Abba I will create.

Dina Sleiman said...

It seems I've been involved in a lot of conversations lately about the importance of presenting the beauty of God to world. My church is going to be involved in a "flash mob" dance on Resurrection Sunday, and we've been spending a good bit of time preparing for it. One of the ladies in the congregation said to me, "This is nice, but I don't see how anyone will come to Christ by driving down the highway and seeing 1000 people dancing together." I told her that maybe they won't come to Christ, but that it might very well change their image of Christians and of God, which will open them up to the gospel.

When we present a "truth," it has to go through the head, which often rejects it. But when we present "beauty" it goes straight to the heart and ministers in ways we could never imagine.

Unknown said...

Katy, your post was stirring. I want so badly to give Christian fiction a new name, like Jesus promises us. A new identity as something that will endure, that will command respect even from those who do not believe as we do.

I believe that what we need is redemption -- something being bought back (at great cost, no doubt about it) from a fallen state. This I say without judgment on those who have put it into the fallen state, nor those who read unredeemed Christian literature. (Dare I speak of such a thing?)

Every genre and subgenre should be redeemable. Don't you think?

Marcy Kennedy said...

Beautifully put. I think if we take your advice and think of our work as a sacred act, it'll also help when we encounter people who don't understand why we chose to write, rather than doing something more "productive" with out time. It's much easier to face that attitude when you view what you're doing as an act of service meant to draw others to the Lord.

Katharine said...

Hi! I'm Katharine (long time lurker, first time commentor)

I LOVED this! I'm almost giddy you wrote about it.

Recently my family and I switched churches. We had many reasons for making the switch, but one of the most important was the value they placed on the arts. My former church didn't see art as valuable. I was criticized for not showing up for a weeknight teaching or outreach. But I felt like if I did, it would rob precious time alone working on my novel, which is all about finding God. God can potentially use my novel to change the world. Why can't I spend time, alone, creating it?

The new church has a sign in the lobby, surrounded by beautiful abstract paintings, that says "We believe every member of this church is an ARTIST and God created us to glorify him creatively."

We're pretty arrogant if we think that God can only reach people in specific ways. We'll never fully understand the value of art in his Kingdom. I'm so glad I get to write for Him. He created me to do this for his pleasure.

Kathleen Popa said...

Katherine! Thank you for finally commenting. I hope you'll make it a habit. I love it that your church posted that sign. It would lead to all sorts of discussion - haven't you heard it before? "I'm not an artist; I practice hospitality." But these discussions, about the ways we create as creatures made in his image, need to take place.

It freed me immensely to learn that the first person the Bible describes as having been filled with the Spirit - in Exodus 31:1-5 - is an artist: "Then the LORD said to Moses, 'See, I have chosen Bezalel ... and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts.'"

Marcy, ah, the need to be productive. Wonder if Bezalel ever got that rap? "What's with all the design stuff? Why don't you go make a tent or something?"

Latayne, yes!

Susie, we hold this treasure in earthen vessels.

Dina, YES! Truth goes to the head. Beauty goes to the heart.

Such a big part is seeing the beauty. Paying attention, as an act of worship. He who has eyes to see...

Marcia Lee Laycock said...

Loved this post - made me think of many books that were so much more to me than just words on a page. Thanks.

Kathleen Popa said...

Thank you, Marcia. I do love seeing a F*i*F'er here. (Everybody, Faith in Fiction was a lively, life changing forum, once upon a time, and one of our inspirations here at Novel Matters.)

Anonymous said...

Katy, what a good post, and what good comments from everyone. Dina, I LOVE that you're participating in a flash mob dance!! I was watching one on line the other day and I thought, "Oh, how I wish I could do that." I'll be there in spirit with you, my friend.

Katharine, I love the sign your church posted. We are children of THE ETERNAL CREATOR. Well, then, shouldn't we create?

Megan Sayer said...

Kathleen there are so many nuggets in here that I'd desperately love to stop on and ask "tell me more please?", but there's just not enough time today.

I will ask of Latayne though, what is unredeemed Christian literature? What is redeemed Christian literature?

Is it in the takeaway? Is it in the content?

Megan Sayer said...

Here's another thought, and although it's a semantic one the revelation behind it for me is quite profound.

You talked about a book's "takeaway", a term I've heard a lot. This time though it conjured the mental image of a book giving me drive-through MacDonald's.

So many Christian books strive for a takeaway, and in doing so they end up with a takeaway dinner feel: zero preparation, just open your mouth and digest. That's nice...sometimes, although it can never compare with a meal that delights your five senses, that make you work to experience the richness of flavour, texture and smell.

I don't want to write takeaway books. For me, books that worship are the ones you have to wrestle with, ones that make you enter their world at cost...but now I'm coming round to repeating you.

Meg Moseley said...

Another old F*i*F-er here. I love the discussions here like I loved the F*i*F discussions.

I don't have anything profound to say. I'm just sitting with my mom who's in hospice care. She was--and still is--an artist. At 92, nearly blind, she wants us to bring flowers close to her face so she can savor their colors and shapes. She's so close to eternity that I can easily imagine her as an artist, still, when she steps into heaven. Art is part of her worship, like writing is part of my worship. What a gift the arts are! What a privilege it is to dare to call ourselves artists, creators, even if our art is a pale imitation of God's.

Suzy Parish said...

My hands are wooden, but my heart burns within me.

Steve G said...

My first thought was a novel is absolutely "sacred art", as they do it "heartily as to the Lord". By that I mean you give of your best. Who would offer God something that cost them nothing? When you do that, the anonymity isn't really an issue anymore.

When books that publishers buy become about saleability, it is no longer art so much as it is a job (and finances). So we have the great bohemian quandary - how do you do art yet make a living? If it takes some 10,000 hours to become a master craftsmen, how do you make a living during those hours of no or little pay? No one way is right for anyone. Some may have a patron. Some may find help in a co-op of sorts (ie, people commit to giving a certain percentage of book deals to the coop so when they are in a dry time there are some resources to draw from. Some will coop physical space and other resources. Some will write for the market so they can have resources to write for the art. Some will find success in other publishing options, etc etc.

My second thought was that I got way off topic and started to try to fix things. My bad.

My third thought was - yeas, let's start something new - a movement. A Christian fiction movement where we are not ashamed to real life stuff that intersects with the world today. It almost feels tangible...

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

"Who wants him to tidy our small worlds if we can follow into his explosion of grace?"

LOVE it! This post is like a really mature, complex wine. So many subtleties to taste and ponder. I'm so glad you've come back to this idea of a Christian Renaissance. I was an art teacher for 6 years, so I really appreciate how your fine-art perspectives translate into the realm of the written word.

Steve... how nice would it be to have a patron of the arts! LOL. Maybe I could convince my husband to be mine. Not much luck thus far. =) Those 10,000 hours are the killer, aren't they? All that necessary work with no coin to show for it. And bills still need to be paid.

Kathleen Popa said...

Sharon: Yes!

Megan, I love books I have to wrestle with, too. Isn't that the meaning of the name, Israel? "He has striven with God." Must be a good thing.

Meg, you couldn't give us a better compliment. I'm glad you're here. Your mother sounds like a precious woman of God. You are blessed.

Suzy - yes.

Steve, it does feel tangible, doesn't it?

I don't want to go too hard on publishers - at least not on Saturday morning when I'm in a mellow mood. Like the Bohemian who writes for the market - they have to eat. And as your list demonstrates, there is never only one way to get things done.

Somehow, I don't mind quandries so much if I can attach the word, "Bohemian" to them. S'cuse me while I don my love beads.

Karen, shall I send you some too?

We'll come back to the Rennaissance thing from time to time. I've got it in my craw.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

LOL - yes please, Katy! =)

(Do you mind if I call you that? Not sure which you prefer...)

Brenda Leyland @ Its A Beautiful Life said...

Marcia recommended this posting on her blog... and am I ever GLAD I stopped by. I've stumbled on a GIFT.... your posting and this whole blog!

I was intrigued by the title "novel as sacred art"... as I'm always on the lookout for the creativity and beauty in all we do and say... since we are made in the image of One who is so creative and beautiful.

I, too, will never forget the time so many years ago when I saw that the 'first person the Bible describes as having been filled with the Spirit - in Exodus 31:1-5 - is an artist!' It was a life-changing moment for me. It was soooo encouraging and freeing.

Here's wishing you glimpses of heaven in unexpected places.......

Kathleen Popa said...

Brenda, we are so glad you stopped by. I hope you'll become a regular visitor and commenter here. Thank you so much for your kind words.