16 May 2006

Art for faith or faith for art?

I am currently struggling with idolatry. I suppose we all struggle against idolizing someone or something: mine right now is poetry. But not in the way you might suppose. I do not venerate poems or poets, do not put studying or reading poetry over the Word of God, do not spend time with poets or poetry books instead of in Christian fellowship or worship. No, this idolatry is far more subtle, insinuating, disguised under ostensible goodness. So much so that I often wonder if it’s wrong at all. Here it is.

I find I desire spiritual experience, knowledge, and understanding in order to write poetry. When I hear a good sermon, read a verse that stands out to my mind, make some mental connection between daily life or nature and God, have a good conversation about faith, etc., I immediately wonder how I can turn it into a poem. And I look for these sorts of occurrences—good sermons, devotions, conversations—as fodder for writing. I desire more closeness with Christ, I long to know Him more, I thirst for sightings of Him everywhere— in order to write poetry about Him. This is wrong-headed indeed.

Written out here, in plain words, I wonder how I could ever be deceived by so clearly sinful a thought-pattern. Using faith as a means to any other end—making God into a stepping-stone to something less than Himself?—I could never be that stupid. No, perhaps not, but in daily thoughts it seems even righteousness. Ah, that I would know my Saviour more and write that knowledge in profound, moving, beautiful, convincing words, why, that would be as good as evangelizing. And it would be a witnessing of sorts, wouldn’t it? Sharing the truth of what I have experienced in my faith to others—only I haven’t experienced it yet. Hum, well, I’d better hurry up and experience it so I can write about it so others can read it, and then I’ll be serving God…. You see how shrewd my own mind can be against itself?

Knowing this, admitting it straight out here, might be the first buttress against these so sly attacks. But how to put faith-for-poetry on its feet? How to put all my desire into knowing God Himself for His own sake without then trying to force that process into poetry? Probably by sacrificing the poetry, by cutting off the right hand. Not necessarily giving up poetry-writing, if that is one thing God has called me to, but expelling those thoughts of making the Lord serve my paltry work, and seeking Him with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength for His own sake.

C. S. Lewis in “Learning in War Time” talks about keeping the motives for learning/art/academia/the intellectual life
“pure and disinterested. That is the great difficultly. …we may come to love knowledge—our knowing—more than the thing known: to delight not in the exercise of our talents but in the fact that they are ours, or even in the reputation they bring us. Every success in the scholar’s [may I add, the poet’s] life increases this danger. If it becomes irresistible, he must give up his scholarly work. The time for plucking out the right eye has arrived.”

1 comment:

Rosie Perera said...

Wow, what a powerful and honest and self-aware confession!

The desire for experience of God as a means to some other end is an age-old temptation that the classic writers of Christian spirituality often speak of. I must confess that I often spend my time reading what other writers say about their own spiritual experiences instead of experiencing God myself. Lately I've been aware of and disturbed by my frequent unwillingness to submit to God. But I wondered why I'm even concerned about that. Is it because of the blessings that come to one who is willing to submit to God (e.g., life seems to go more smoothly), or is it simply because I love Him? I fear it is more the former than the latter. Then I worry that I'm trying to prove how humble and "spiritual" I am by how good I am at recognizing my own sinfulness. Ugh! It never ends.

Fortunately, I am told that those of us who worry about such things are on the right path already and needn't worry. The closer we draw to God, the more we are aware of our own sinfulness in comparison to Him, so this constant analyzing our own failings must be a sign that we are drawing near to Him. (Or is it? Aren't those who are really close to Him freed from this need to self-criticize?). I'm reminded of Martin Luther's confessor telling him to stop worrying about all his pecadillos, which is part of what led Luther to recognize that he was saved by grace.

Nonetheless, I do think it is a valid concern, that you not try to gain more spiritual experiences and knowledge just to turn them into poetry. It is right for your poetry to be a spontaneous response to the experiences of God you are given, but as long as you recognize that they are entirely up to Him to give you when and how He desires, and they don't come by any effort of your own, you'll be OK.

I wonder whether it is part of the artistic temperament to be more aware of our own sinfulness and down on ourselves (or even depressed) about it? I have had discussions about this with artistic friends of mine, and it's a common thread.