Friday, January 28, 2011

Art or Virtue?

I just finished reading Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God by Francis Chan.  The themes of this book are very familiar, but good and necessary to study again.  I'll do a review of it sometime, but today I want to focus on one little paragraph in the book that I disagree with, it's something fairly insignificant and yet for me it reflects a significant shift in my thinking in the past few years.

He is referring to his wife's grandmother, a woman who he says loved Jesus more than anyone he'd ever met.  They are sitting together with some of his wife's relatives, watching a play.  During intermission he asked the grandmother if she was enjoying the play, and she said, "Oh honey, I really don't want to be here right now.  I just don't know if this is where I want to be when Christ returns.  I'd rather be helping someone or on my knees praying.  I don't want him to return and find me sitting in a theater."

I am familiar with this way of thinking.  I do not question this woman's sincere love for Christ, but I disagree with the belief that watching a play- or reading books or playing sports (no, sports somehow are acceptable but I'm not sure why?) or . . . anything other than praying and helping people is unspiritual.  The way that I have seen this perspective play out is faith that is often brittle, pragmatic . . . without elegance or loveliness . . . typically with underlying judgment toward people who do these other things.   People who think this way don't plant trees or study literature or hike the Appalachian Trail.  Education is purely practical and vocation is only a means to an end. Basically, anything that is not praying or helping people- in their narrowly defined form prayer and help- is unspiritual.

(I remember asking my art professor if he felt it was okay to make art and spend so much money on paint when there are so many hungry people in the world, and how clearly annoyed he was with the question!)

I can't really give a chapter and verse, except that I no longer believe that life can be divided.  Everything in life can and should be offered as praise to God- whether you are praying in church or acting in a play or just getting dressed in the morning.

I don't think the play has to somehow have the Roman's Road worked into it, either, only that the art is true.  This is why Christian "art" is so tragically lacking- the narrow definition of what is spiritual has produced some of the most tasteless, meaningless, "untrue" art.

In Bright Evening Star, Madeleine L'Engle makes a comment about the way her friend was raised:
"It was far more important that you live a virtuous Christian life than that you might write Beethovan's Ninth Symphony." 
I have thought a lot about this comment.  Yes, it is the religion I was raised with, too, and it is difficult to break out of this way of thinking.  Does it have to be virtue "or" art?  Can't a life given to praise value- and create- both?

Has anyone else ever struggled with this dichotomy?


camilla said...

One of our small groups has been go through this book right now. I smile as I read your thoughts. There are points (different points for each of us) that my husband and I have disagreed with the author.

I have discovered so much about who God is through the arts. Being true to the beautiful gifts created in and through us glorifies him. Chan's grandmother's words make me sad, sad that there is much of who God is that she apparently at that point hadn't discovered. Likewise, I know that there were things she'd discovered about God at that point that I haven't get learned.

You're right in suggesting it does not need to be virtue "or" art.

MommyJ said...

I absolutely agree with you. (I'm sensing a pattern here, I think. ;))

When I look around me, I see a world that is rich with color and vivid beauty. Everything about this world is art - from the simplicity of a daffodil to the extravagance of a peacock... I think God celebrated art and beauty every single step of the creation. And I also think that God wants us to feel joy. If you don't mind me quoting a scripture from the Book of Mormon, (it's one of my favorites): "Adam fell that man might be, and men are that they might have joy." Joy comes from so many different things, from art, from leisure, from time well spent with our family. If it makes us feel good, uplifts our spirits and makes us feel closer to God, how is there harm in that? For me, I have written myself through testimony building experiences, I have communed with God through words. For others, it is through music, for others, through art.

I fear I'm rambling and not making any sense. Just one more thing... not so long ago at one of my church's worldwide conferences, a talk, or a sermon, if you will, was given on living a consecrated life. I remember this part well:

"Having spoken in praise of labor, I must also add a kind word for leisure. Just as honest toil gives rest its sweetness, wholesome recreation is the friend and steadying companion of work. Music, literature, art, dance, drama, athletics—all can provide entertainment to enrich one’s life and further consecrate it. At the same time, it hardly needs to be said that much of what passes for entertainment today is coarse, degrading, violent, mind-numbing, and time wasting. Ironically, it sometimes takes hard work to find wholesome leisure. When entertainment turns from virtue to vice, it becomes a destroyer of the consecrated life."

That's all. (And so sorry for hijacking your comments section.)

Anonymous said...

i agree with you jess....have been thinking about this very thing so.much. what if just "being" is as spiritual as it gets?? not doing, not becoming, not spiritualizing. just BEING. ??? but then i know that gets a lot of religious pants in a bundle. but what if??

Anonymous said...

oh ya. meant to say...would love LOVE to discuss this with you!!! :)

Jo@Mylestones said...

You are SPOT on. And here's a verse to support it: "So whether you eat or drink or WHATEVER you do, do it all for the glory of God."
I was raised (though I think unintentionally) in the categorization of spiritual vs. secular, but only when it came to the beautiful things like art and vacations and theatre and hiking to the top of a mountain and sailing across open waters. That said, If my job was to do household chores, that's when the old "whatever you do" verse got quoted.
I think, at least early on in our Christian experience, we all have a propensity toward a monk-like approach--figuring we ought to suffer and go without and generally be dissatisfied with our lives in order to be truly "spiritual." But the things that appeal to our flesh (a delightful meal) or to our eyes (a gorgeous scene) or to our ears (an amazing, transcending song) are meant to be enjoyed. He created all things for man to enjoy, did He not?
I love what you've said here. I couldn't agree more...

Darcee said...

I really enjoy this post. Although I am not generally an artist (in the sense that I do not draw or paint) I do feel that the act of living is an art form. Jesus himself was an artist. He used language in a very artful way through parables.

Ruth said...

I thought this too, when I read the book. I'm glad you blogged about it.

Fijufic said...

Those are deep thoughts. Very deep thoughts actually. I view all of my endeavors as spiritual in some form or fashion come to think of it...

Flower Patch Farmgirl said...

I remember that part of the book. I've thought about it many times since, too. Ugh - it's all kinda confusing! I can think these things to death. I totally understand what you're saying, and I think that God did create us to be artful beings. I see His beauty daily through the view outside my window or the food on the plate in front of me.

But - I also think that more is required of us, and maybe that was the point she/he tried to make? It's just not enough any more to have the attitude that we can live life happily and effortlessly and hope that it's enough. There IS more and we should WANT more.

I'm not saying I'm there yet, but I'd sure like to be!

Just my $0.02. :)

Beautiful post, friend. Thanks for making us dig deeper.

Misha Leigh. said...

I think the master artist is only honoured when we enjoy beauty. When we see him as the source of all beauty, all the more. Because then he is worshipped by our enjoyment of it!

Love reading your thoughts on this.