25 July 2009

Art Teaches Me God

I’m reading an article in the Chronicle of the Oxford C. S. Lewis society, entitled “Mirrors, Shadows and the Muses: C. S. Lewis and the Value of Arts and Letters.” The author, Rod Miller (who gave a paper on “The Synoptic Lewis” at the Perelandra Colloquium), surveys a problem in CSL’s writing. He aptly observes that Lewis cannot seem to figure out the rightful place of the arts and ‘culture’ in the life of a Christian. Lewis says that it is OK to be an artist (composer, dancer, actor, etc.) if that is one’s vocational calling (as long as it is not an idol) and that art can have the side effect of calling one to God, since it often communicates values that are, at least, not in conflict with the truths of Scripture.

Shame on him.

I would have thought more of Lewis. But I agree with Mr. Miller, at least as far as the nonfiction prose goes. In CSL’s poetry and fiction, art naturally takes a higher place. Maybe this is an idea I can pursue in a paper sometime. For now, I just want to talk about the high place art has had in my spiritual life. I’m not propounding a theory, doctrine, or truth (at least not explicitly); however, I imagine that if this has happened to me, it is designed, and has probably happened to others, and therefore a theory/doctrine/truth can be extrapolated from it.

The purpose of human existence is to know God. “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” as the catechism has it: but one cannot glorify and enjoy that of which one is ignorant. It could be argued that the entire Christian life is the process of getting to know God. That is the cry of my heart: to have some sense of knowing God: emotionally, experientially, intellectually—all three, for choice. So how does one know God?

Well, I’m someone who lives in a constant battle with doubts and un-knowing. I have had few moments of certainty. Some have come during suffering: I never had a more assumed sense of God’s presence than when I was suffering. But more have come as an aesthetic response. That’s the way I’m wired: I know God, in some incontestable, un-discussable way when I’m thrilled by a work of art.

Not too many months ago, one of my sisters surprised me with a gift in the mail. It may very well be the best gift I’ve ever received. It’s the volume of Charles Williams’ Arthurian Poetry: Taliessin Through Logres & The Region of the Summer Stars, along with CW’s essays on Arthurian themes and CSL’s prose commentary on the whole. When I was looking through the book—not even reading the poetry, just browsing the table of contents—I knew this was true beauty, this was true subcreation, this proved God’s existence. I remember even saying to myself, in more distinct words that I usually use in my mind in response to such sensations, “This proves that God exists.” I would be hard pressed to really say why, but I felt it. I am aware of the troublesome subjectivity of that statement. But that was, incontestably, a sudden sense of God’s existence, and, what’s more, of His nature. In an atheistic world (were such a thing possible), no such beauty as CW’s Arthurian poetry could exist. It’s not just the beauty: it’s also the scope, the complexity, the suggestiveness, the concepts, and the incompletion. These are, I believe, features—if not of God’s actual nature—of the way we are able to understand Him in the created order. They are part of General Revelation. To be more specific: I experienced (or received?) General Revelation when reading the list of pieces in that volume of Williams’ verse.

A few weeks ago, during our travels in the British Isles, G & I went to a performance of Romeo & Juliet in the Globe Theatre. It wasn’t the greatest performance I’ve ever seen (the best production of R & J I’ve encountered, by far, was the one performed by the BreadLoaf acting company in the summer of, oh, it must have been 2005). The actors at the Globe are not great. I guess the appeal is the location: the price is low, so every tourist can come and catch a Shakespeare play in Shakespeare’s “own” theatre. I mean, that’s why I went! So, anyway, the actors were not spectacular, but the text was uncut (I’ve never seen a full production of the text before, so that was great). And there were some sublime moments. Really, the thrill came from standing in the yard, first while the sun burned our heads and shoulders, then while the crowd rustled and cowered under quite a heavy rain shower, my elbows on the stage, my face at the heels of the players. That was priceless, and unforgettable. There was one moment that is ‘in my memory locked.’ Romeo came and stood right in front of me. I had to move my elbows off the stage, he stood so close. The rain was falling lightly. Romeo was clad all in black. I believe it was the ‘strange dream, that gives a dead man leave to think’ speech. He stood quietly, arms down at his sides, slowly pondering those timeless words out loud. ‘I dreamt my lady came and found me dead—/ Strange dream, that gives a dead man leave to think!— / And breathed such life with kisses in my lips / That I reviv’d and was an emperor.’ I stood directly below him, looking up the length of his slender body: trim slippered shoes, black tights and fitted knee-length britches, close doublet, black smooth skin on his taut neck and thin young face, cropped black hair; the rain slanted down in perfect lines all around him, parallel to his body, framing him. From my perspective, the rain seemed either suspended—streaks or tiny cords stretched taut, etched on the image—or rising up in gray rays all about that pensive lover. It was an experience of faultless minimalism: everything was pure, and perpendicular, and gray-and-black. All was quiet and thoughtful, before the blow of grief. In my mind, I did not hear his dream speech; instead, I heard Hamlet’s ‘…this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable. in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world; the paragon of animals; and yet to me what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me….’ All the nobility and tragedy of man’s glorious condition stood quietly before me, slanting up into the monochrome overcast sky. And I felt the exquisite craftsmanship and vast indifference of Omnipotence in such a creation. I knew God for the duration of that speech: the divine discovered in an actor’s shabby costume and mediocre work, buoyed up by profound words, tempered by the stark colouring of that scene, limned by geometric Nature. It was a remarkable moment.

So, those are just two examples of times that Art has taught me something about God.


lionmamma said...

this is posted by stephanie spun.

lionmamma said...

I have been pondering this posting for about half an hour. I agree with you that is does seem that CSL comes down a little negatively on the subject of art, considering the place of, for instance, Phantastes, in his conversion. Yet, I have a guess about how he may have been thinking.
When a Christian percieves the sublime in the world, through art or nature or whatever, he or she recognizes it as God or an image of God. The Christian response to this is, I think, worship.
This may be a response of the soul to its maker that all men are capable of, something like Plato's idea of recognition.
But I think the activity of being Christian is in the response of worship when that encounter is present, and obedience when it is not. I know that even as a Christian I have a part of myself that is tempted to try to take splendor as my own rather than to kneel in worship. I do not think there is anything in a vehicle of splendor that would make it quite safe from that temptation. From what I know of Lewis' preconversion, I think he also struggled with that desire until he came to know the source.
That is my guess about why he used such caution.
I think it could also be analogous to how he saw Eros, and something that could take the leap of loving another more than ourselves in a single bound, and yet if not coming to its natural changes could be a false god.
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