28 April 2006

Encountering art

Old Masters Gallery at the Zwinger Palace, DresdenThis is a photo I took in the Old Masters Gallery at the Zwinger Palace in Dresden. It demonstrates the three difference paces at which people take in an art museum (you can click on it to enlarge it to see this better). There are those who rush through trying to see as much as they can (the lady on the left going by so fast she's a blur). Others stand for a long time in front of each painting (the lady facing away from us who stood without budging for the entire long exposure). And some are so pooped out by the whole experience that they just sit around on the benches. Which is your art museum pace?

I remember being dragged around to art museums as a kid and not appreciating them. I took the nearby Clark Art Institute and Berkshire Museum for granted (I have memories of childhood misbehavior in both of them!), and was bored by the Louvre and the Jeu de Paume in Paris, which we got to see when I was 14. How much has changed since then! Now, seeing the art museums is high on my priority list when I visit a new city. I'm fortunate to have had the opportunity to see some of the world's greatest museums: besides the Louvre, I've seen the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

As for my pace, I tend to pick and choose a few works to stand and study or simply admire, and rush through other rooms, depending on how much time I have available. I could return to the greatest paintings (especially Rembrandt and van Gogh) over and over and never get tired of them. Henri Nouwen spent more than four hours in front of Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son at the Hermitage, and it totally changed his life. He writes about it in his book by the same title: "A seemingly insignificant encounter with a poster presenting a detail of Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son set in motion a long spiritual adventure that brought me to a new understanding of my vocation and offered me new strength to live it." Do you have any experiences of encountering art which changed your life?

25 April 2006

Art as a balance to life in this technological society

I have done a lot of thinking over the past ten years or so about how living in a technological world affects our spiritual life (including our relationship with others and the whole of creation), and how Christian faith can inform our creation and stewardship of technology. (See "Technology and Christian Spirituality," my comprehensive paper for my Masters degree at Regent College.) I am now beginning to formulate a theory as to how an involvement in the arts (both as appreciators and as creators thereof) can be a balance for the potentially soul-deadening effects of technology.

1. Art keeps us engaged with the physical, material world. While technology draws us into abstractions and virtual reality, the arts engage our bodily senses and bring us into contact with the concrete stuff of life. This is true still of most of the art forms, especially sculpture, painting, dance, theatre, live music, architecture, and the culinary arts. Good poetry, while not material itself, usually employs imagery from the physical world and tends to draw us to experience it in person. Even photography, which is increasingly digital, and can involve hours of post-processing on a computer, still requires the photographer to get out into the physical world for an initial image. I think the more removed from the physical reality a photograph is (through digital manipulation), the less it helps to engage the viewer with the world around. And I suppose this point does not apply much at all to such forms of art as digitally composed and performed music, abstract visual art created entirely on computer, etc., except that they interact with our eardrums or retinas.

2. Art slows us down, and makes us more aware of the sacredness of time. While technology speeds up the pace of our lives, we need to slow down in order to read, observe, listen to, touch, taste, or contemplate an artistic creation. I am not sure what to make of the trend towards ever more multi-tasking, which puts the arts as a background to some other task (e.g., someone listening to music on their iPod while working at the computer or driving), as it seems to weaken my point.

3. Art is more inherently relational than most technology. There is an artist, and the observer can recognize traits of that artist's style, personality, soul, and worldview (see recent threads on this blog) in the work of art. On the other hand, a piece of computer hardware or software hides the creators' identities behind a uniformity designed for easier usability. I worked for eleven years in the software industry, and I can attest that the artists in us were crying out to be known anyway, so we used to hide little animated credits sequences (art!) in our software, even though it was against company policy. There is something artistic in the craft of software development, but I'll save that for another reflection for some other time (unless I decide I've said all I need to on it right there).

4. Art has the capability to be truth-telling, prophetic. We are moved to action by some film showing the degradation of the environment; David is convicted of his sin through a story; the gospel of God's loving forgiveness is communicated through Rembrandt's painting "The Return of the Prodigal Son." I'm not sure this point totally gives art the upper hand over technology, as certainly the Internet has been used to proclaim truth and motivate and mobilize people for social action, environmental protection, spiritual growth, etc. But the Internet is a tool, a channel of communication. The initial prophetic moment generally involves some form of art communicated via this medium, whether it be a well-crafted essay or a shocking documentary photograph.

5. Art, inasmuch as it has to do with Story, engages people in community. That may be a community of shared listeners, or the community of those who came before and created the stories. Again, this might not be the domain of art alone, as computer technology can be used to enhance, and even in some rare cases (house-bound invalids, for example) create, community.

These are just a few beginning thoughts. Very untested. Possibly completely out in left field. But that's why I'm putting them out here -- to get some feedback.

Worldview point #1

Link to the original Worldview List

1. Christianity is literally true AND subject to imaginative application/interpretation.

First of all and above all, I desire that my students would come to a saving understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Scriptures, codified in the creeds (Apostle’s Creed; Nicene Creed) and further explained through the teachings of the Reformers ( Some thoughts on Reformed Theology). If nothing else, I would that some chance word of mine would lodge in their hearts to the saving of their souls. I want to see my students in Heaven, every one of them! To this end, I unfold to them the works of great Christian writers and composers, and evaluate the works of “pagan” masters in light of Biblical truth. I show them the consequences of ungodly actions, such as the ultimate destruction of King Arthur’s society through (in part) the sin of Lancelot & Guinevere. I lead them in the search for truth and appearances of Christ’s work in poem, chant, symphony, novel, church policy, political decree, opera, short story, myth, legend, sonata, mass, historical event, and contemporary society. I want them to feel God’s pleasure in great craftsmanship, whether with words or notes.

Secondly, I desire to promote an understanding of the literal meaning of the Scriptures. I want my students to revere God’s Person and His word as being what they say they are. I confront them when they misuse Him name. I challenge them to examine their work to see if it conforms to His revealed will. It thrills me when they quote Scripture in class context or apply a Biblical principle to our subject of study.

Third, I want them (and myself! This is an ongoing task…) to understand that these absolute, immutable truths (such as Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection) are “subject to imaginative application/interpretation.” As can be guessed from the above talk on the literal nature of Scripture, this obviously does not mean that the truths themselves are subject to personal misunderstanding, misapplication, etc. It does not mean that each person decides for himself what they mean. What I intend to impart with this principle is that the truths of Christ’s life and work have endless possibilities of imaginative use and application to life and art.

The application of His life to our lives is endless. Who knows how many ways I can take the principle of forgiveness and let go of guilt, let go of anger, let go of victim-martyr feelings, let go of just-wrath emotions, forgive and be forgiven? Who knows how many times in this one day, even, I may turn to Christ for fullness of joy, delight in daffodils, thrill of birdsong, peace of new-unfurling leaves, happiness of music on the radio, thankfulness for fresh produce turning into dinner, gratitude for the comfort of couch and carpet, prayers of amazement for works of Turner or Waterhouse or Rockwell on my walls? Through Him, the Word, all things were created, and to Him I turn my thanks, endlessly application and endlessly interpreted into every corner of life. The opposite is possible, too, of course. If I render not my thanks and loyalty to God, to whom do I render them? The Enemy is eager to take whatever he can get.

The application of Christian truths to art is endless. For example: the fact of His birth has led to innumerable paintings, poems, and stories on Christmas, and will continue to do so. The one historical fact, a pinpoint of space and time, unfolds outward into millions of different expressions. There is no limit to how we can imaginatively interpret the event within the formal boundaries of the Biblical account—freedom within the framework of theology, to paraphrase Gordon College’s motto. Shaping art within theology is like ordering words within the sonnet’s “narrow walls,” or painting portraits of infinity within the 2’3” X 3’4” of a given canvas. Think how multitudinously truth explodes outward! Think of Dante’s threefold, many-circled and -terraced and -sphered universe, theology expressed in materiality, spiritual condition embodied in physical location. Think of Lewis’s Space Trilogy, the Temptation (but not The Fall!) reenacted on another planet, temptation and choice and predestination and innocence and goodness and glorification and perfection written into an imaginary world with all the passion of belief. The Lady’s skin was green, but her heart was human, and her soul was in the precarious position of our first mother’s. Thus do I hope that I and my students will see truth: infinite in application, infinite in variety, endless in artistic inspiration.

17 April 2006

What’s your worldview?

A few posts ago, Michael asked me, “What do you teach? What knowledge or worldview do you hope your students leave you with?” This is an excellent question, and I am glad he has driven me to self-examination by it. I always consider what my students leave each class day with, and what I hope they will leave each course with, but what is the overall worldview I hope to impart by a year or a lifetime of teaching? So I will consider this question in several parts over many days to come.

Meanwhile, I would like to ask you to answer the question, Dear Reader. Yes, that means you! I would love to read many short, small, thoughts and anecdotes regarding your worldview. If you are a teacher, What knowledge or worldview do you hope to impart to your students? If you are an artist (visual, literary, other…), What knowledge or worldview do you hope to impart to your audience (viewers, readers, etc…)?

Please feel free to share your thoughts!

16 April 2006

Sonnet for Easter Sunday

The Garden Tomb in Jerusalem

It is empty!


I stood insensate in the rain before
a heartless stone that sealed and tombed my Lord,
until a shining voice of white-hot power
echoed: “Stand aside!” I hardly heard.
I still stood, in a puddle tinted red
below a bleeding sunrise, when the rush
of molten feathers brushed and burnt my hand,
a silver swordflat felled me with a touch.
Someone stood near, flowing with a distant
speed of galaxies, and heaved the stone
to roll the sorrow open. Then the instant
passed in white light, like a flash, the tomb
stood open, gaping black impotent Death,
and Someone stood—was it the gardener?—and breathed.

~ Admonit

Thanks to Pastor Tom for inspiring this poem.

15 April 2006

Sonnet for Easter Saturday

Goglotha: The cliff face outside of the Garden Tomb, which resembles a skull.

I have always been fascinated with what the disciples must have felt on that day their Lord lay in the tomb: their despair, their feelings of betrayal, their denial, and maybe their hope?

Easter Saturday

Outside the rock, before the stone, we wait.
The sight of blood on gibbet silhouettes,
the images of spears and dice, remain,
and anguish does not fade although the weight
of daytime darkness lifted and this light
of sunbeams seems too bright for sorrow’s fading
frenzy, seems too thin for grieving fear:
garish, gilded, superficial light.
Inside the rock, behind the stone, You wait.
Your earth-suit wears the contours of its cloth,
which does not rise and fall with breath. Your self,
Your spirit-soul —- where does it wait?
This silence galls our listening and wounds
our waiting. Hope, poor fool, finds quiet in a tomb.

~ Admonit

14 April 2006

A Sonnet for Good Friday

The Garden of Gethsemane

Good Friday

I cannot see the stars. Most midnight nights
As deeply dark as this send forth their stars
To stand out sharp before the shapely black
Backdrop of shade and space, a foil for
Their concentrated crisp white light like ice-
drops dripping fast in springtime’s flashing sun,
Like lakes of brightness boiled, pressed, and packed
Into a single starpoint, split and flung
In scattered fragments on the sky; but now,
Tonight, a terror takes the darkness, holds
It down to nearly meet the ground, and grows
Too stark and starless in its heartless cold:
This falling fate, this nothing, is not night:
This darkness in the daytime seems the death of light.

~ Admonit

In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Listened to: Brahms's and Mozart's Requiems.

10 April 2006

Lewis & Plato

Lewis’ Neo-Platonism
By Judith Eurydice
The Greek philosopher Plato has influenced nearly every great thinker in history. Casting his writings in the form of dialogues between his mentor Socrates and Socrates’ disciples and friends, Plato presented his ideas in an engaging, logical setting. Some twenty-three hundred years after the philosopher’s death, C. S. Lewis absorbed and reworked some of his doctrines into advocates of the Christian faith. His writings are permeated with Platonic ideas, images, and reasoning. From the belief in absolute truth right up through the theory of the forms, this essay will trace the streams of thought that flowed from the philosopher’s writings into Lewis’ theology and fiction. We will discuss how these two great thinkers built on a foundation of absolutes and how they dealt with the dichotomy of appearance versus reality.
The dialogue Republic discusses at the length the question of absolutes. In it, Socrates sets out to describe an ideal state and the qualities its rulers must possess. He challenges his audience, especially Glaucon (Plato’s older brother) to explain justice so they can find a leader with this all-important quality. True to form (no pun intended), Plato is using this discussion as an opportunity of opening up a great many metaphysical and ethical questions: what is justice? why should we practice it? what is our standard for just behavior? All these questions center on the issue of absolute values. C. S. Lewis embraced Biblical absolutes for truth and morality in a time when faith in traditional Christianity had crumbled, post-modernism had brought relativism, and materialism was closing its grip on contemporary thought.
The philosophical question known as “the problem of evil” had long kept Lewis from the Christian faith: if God is good and all-powerful, how is there evil in the world? Ironically, the reverse side of this very problem helped to drive him to God. A scholar from the C. S. Lewis Institute has explained this flip side of the problem of evil succinctly:
“[I]f evil exists, there must be a fixed, absolute, transcendent standard by which we can know it to be evil. If there is real evil, then we must have a fixed standard of good by which we judge it to be evil. This absolute standard points toward God as a being who has this absolute standard in Himself.” (Lindsley 2)
The view of God as the absolute standard runs parallel to Plato’s standard of good: the Good, the highest of the “forms.” Before we will follow these parallels through Lewis’ writings, an explanation of these “forms” is in order.
The Republic is the first dialogue in the Platonic canon to discuss his famous theory of the “forms.” The Greek word, eidos, can also be rendered: idea, ideal, archetype, thing-in-itself, or true reality. In order to illustrate his idea of reality, Socrates asked Glaucon to consider an everyday object, such as a table or a bed. (596b) He then showed how a carpenter might make many different beds, but they all share that same essential quality of being a bed. Whatever that commonality is that makes an item of furniture a bed is the “form.” In order to produce an object that can properly be called a bed, the craftsman has in mind (whether or not he is conscious of it) the appropriate form. The carpenter produces “not the form of bed which according to us is what a bed really is, but a particular bed.” (597a) He concludes that the carpenter’s bed is not “ultimately real;” the only real bed-in-itself is the eidos of bed as created by God. An excellent description of the nature of eidē follows: “Forms cannot be the objects of fleeting sensation, but are the unchanging objects of adequate definition, arrived at through logos. They are variously spoken of as eternal, invariable, indestructible, and ungenerated. Their permanent existence would seem to be out of time and non-temporal, rather than enduring through time, since they are purely what is defined in knowledge.” (Schipper 4) Similarly, in other dialogues, Plato asked his friends to define justice; they could do no better than cite various examples of just acts being performed. Plato then brought them round to the “idea” or eidos of justice. Thus we have Plato’s belief in absolutes.
The illustration of the bed comes during a discussion of art: Plato believed that art was unnecessary and even harmful, because it is a representation of earthly things, which is in turn produced from the reality of the forms. Therefore, art is thrice removed from “reality.” (597e) p.425 “Suppose, then, that a man could produce both the original and the copy. Do you think he would seriously want to devote himself to the manufacture of copies and make it the highest object in life?” (599b) However, he goes on to suggest that poets like Homer would have been truer to reality if they had gone off and actually fought in battles rather than merely writing about them. Here, we can be thankful that Lewis parted ways with the old philosopher and continued making mere representations. Ironically, the whole structure of the dialogues is in a way deceptive, and far removed from reality: Plato put all these words into Socrates’ mouth and the character of Socrates often uses parables to illustrate his points. Therefore, the doctrines that come to us through these writings could be considered thrice-removed from reality. I would speculate though he dutifully recorded Socrates’ rejection of anything that was not real in the truest sense, Plato understood the value of parables and fables in communicating truths. Lewis certainly understood: chose to use whatever means he could to reach lost souls: he believed in the power of myths in pointing to heavenly truths.
The theory of the forms is presented in the Republic by means of three different “similes” of which we will discuss the most famous: the Simile of the Cave. Book seven describes prisoners in a cave—prisoners from childhood—chained in such a way that they can only look straight before them at the back wall of the cave. Behind them burns a fire and men are carrying objects between them and a fire, creating shadows on the back wall. The prisoners would assume that the shadows they saw were the real objects themselves, having known no other reality (515c). One prisoner, however, was forcibly freed and brought out of the cave into the sunlight. While his eyes were becoming adjusted to the light, they would be pained and dazzled. Once his eyes are able to handle the light, he realizes that what he believed in before were but shadows. He observes the world around him, and finally raises his eyes and recognizes the sun as the means by which he is able to perceive reality. Plato explains the analogy thus:
“The realm revealed by sight corresponds to the prison, and the light of the fire in the prison to the power of the sun. And you won’t go wrong if you connect the ascent into the upper world and the sight of the objects there with the upward progress of the mind into the intelligible region… the final thing to be perceived in the intelligible region… is the form of the good; once seen, it is inferred to be responsible for whatever is right and valuable in anything… being in the intelligible region itself controlling source of truth and intelligence.” (517b)
The simile of the cave best illustrates the disjuncture of appearance versus reality that permeates Lewis’ literature. Not just a philosophical speculation, this dichotomy should bring us to realize: this world that we see is not all there is. We should be led, as Lewis was, to seek out true reality. We as Christians know that truth will always point us to Jesus our Savior. Lewis, a professor of medieval literature, was very familiar with the neo-Platonism of the Middle Ages. Combining views of Plato and Aristotle with Christian principles had been in vogue among intellectuals of that era. As the sun illuminates the visible world, revealing images and sensible objects, so the Good enables us to perceive the intelligible world of the pure reason and the forms. Similarly, they pointed out that the Son illuminates our souls and God enables us to perceive spiritual truths. Revelation tells us that in heaven we will not need the sun: the glory of God is its light and the Lamb is its lamp. However, in this world, the process of spiritual/intellectual enlightenment is not any easy one. The light of the sun was too much for the prisoner’s eyes, and in The Great Divorce, “reality is harsh to the feet of shadows.” (42) But this struggle and pain is part of the process of apprehending the forms and becoming a real, solid person instead of a ghost.
The philosophic idea that is most represented in Lewis is that of “reality versus shadows.” The one who gets out of the cave and sees reality is not believed by the others when he returns to the cave with the good news. There are examples of this throughout Lewis, especially in the Narnia Chronicles: In Prince Caspian, Lucy’s siblings are at first unable to see Aslan, then they see only his shadow, and finally himself, rather like the prisoner emerging from the cave. The Witch of The Silver Chair nearly convinces the children and Puddleglum that their world is really only a dream. Lewis toys with the philosophy of the forms and their particulars: the Witch tells them their idea of a sun is only dream-copy of the lamp which hangs from her ceiling. She suggests that their image of Aslan is drawn from having seen a housecat and dreamed of one larger and better. Of course she is reversing the truth: Aslan is infinitely larger and better—He is the form from which the housecat was copied. The final two chapters of The Last Battle show Lewis at his most Platonic. Perhaps the saddest scene in the whole book is the scene in with the dwarves in “heaven.” True materialists, they refused to be “taken in” by the glorious new experience. They were stuck in their pathetic, self-made reality. But their Narnia “was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia… just as our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world.” (169) In fact, the final chapter of the Narnia Chronicles is entitled “Farewell to Shadowlands.”
For those of us how sense in our souls that our world is not truly real, there is a deep yearning to find fulfillment. That is the reason, Lewis explains, that “we have peopled air and earth and water… with gods and goddesses.” (Weight of Glory 16) We cannot fully participate in Nature, but we feel that we are somehow meant to do so; therefore we invent deities to inhabit and enjoy Nature from the inside for us. But the promise of Christianity is that “…we shall get in… that greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch” (Weight of Glory 17) Here we are invited to “participate” in the forms. This is why Lewis can say in The Great Divorce “…any man who reaches Heaven will find that what he abandoned… was precisely nothing: that the kernel of what he was really seeking even in his most depraved wishes will be there, beyond expectation, waiting for him in the ‘the high Countries.’” (6)
A little-known essay, “Transposition,” contains some of Lewis’ best work in this vein. It is an argument against materialism—the belief that what we see is all there is. The skeptic thinks that spiritual ideas are derived from natural ones (61). He dismisses religious beliefs and spiritual experiences by scientifically explaining them away. To borrow the key phrase from Lewis’ Miracles, the skeptic considers this world of our five senses is “the whole show.” Lewis contends that spiritual truths are so much greater than our experience here, that they must be scaled down to something we can understand: they must be “transposed” from a richer to a poorer medium (60) True to the spirit of Plato, Lewis illustrates his point with a “parable”: the parable of the artist’s son. (68) An artist was in prison and gave birth to her child there. He was raised knowing nothing of the outside world (does this sound familiar?). She drew him pictures of what the world was like outside of the prison, but when she tried to describe how it really looked different from her sketches, he asked, “What no pencil marks there?” Our senses can not apprehend the reality of the spiritual realm: we cannot see it only because it is “incomparably more visible.” (69)
That Hideous Strength contains an unnerving parody on this whole idea of reality. The character of Mark Studdock has too much materialistic education and too little human interaction, as well as no faith or belief: “his education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than the things he saw. Statistics about agricultural labourers were the substance; any real ditcher, ploughman, or farmer’s boy was the shadow.” He has a serious personal spiritual problem: a lack of concern for people as individuals, as creations in the image of God. This is further shown through his “…great reluctance, in his work, ever to use such words as ‘man’ or ‘woman.’ He preferred to write about ‘vocational groups,’ ‘elements,’ ‘classes,’ and ‘populations’…” What is fascinating about this description is Lewis’ wry, ironic comment: “he believed as firmly as any mystic in the superior reality of the things that are not seen.” (93) This is Hebrews 11 material with Platonic overtones; Lewis has deliberately twisted the perspective, setting the mood of bitter skepticism. This passage reminds us of Plato’s rejection of art: Mark is trebly removed from “reality.” He has sunken to contemplating shadowy descriptions of people who are in turn themselves only “shadows.”
The problem with materialism is that it treats this poor land of shadows like reality. Plato would recognize in the Hell of The Great Divorce our own world. This wonderful book has all of Hell fit into a small crack in the ground of Heaven. When a ghost tried to pocket an apple (a “real commodity”) to take back with him, an angel told him, “Put it down; there is not room for it in Hell.” (52) The painter was unable to appreciate the reality of the heavenly landscape. He had loved paint only as a means for portraying the light that he loved. Then he had gradually come to love paint “for its own sake.” (81) One of the Solid People tried to remind him: “When you painted on earth… it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape. The success of your painting was that you allowed others to see the glimpses too. But here you have the thing itself.” (80) It does not get much more Platonic than that! Excepting, perhaps, the statement, also in The Great Divorce, “Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is heavenly.” (69)
Plato would have endeavored to free the soul through intellectual disciplines. The soul, the mind, intellect—these are the part of man that can apprehend the eide. He hoped to purify the soul by freeing it from bodily interference. That is because he believed the forms to be the only true facts, therefore, the only facts worth knowing. The Great Divorce refers to God as “Truth, the Eternal fact.” (44) This echoes the belief of Lewis’ friend Charles Williams (whose Place of the Lion has the Platonic Ideals break into our world and roam the English countryside wreaking havoc) that “the glory of God is in facts” (The Redeemed City) and “all facts are joyful” (Descent into Hell) because they are part of God’s unalterable will. Lewis emphasized denial of the Self; not necessarily the body’s physical needs or wants, but the Self that sets itself up as an individual as opposed to a mere reflection of its Creator. One can participate in the Form or not and thus be clothed in His glory or not. I wish Plato and Lewis could have met; Lewis is almost a philosophical Messiah, fulfilling and redeeming the prophecies of the ancients. What Plato and Lewis both endeavor to do is to force our spiritual gaze ever upward. We are created in the image of God. He is the form on which we are based. We are but shadows or copies of him. But we are invited to become more like Him; we are invited to participate in the Form who created the forms. He is our Eidos, our archetype, our thing-in-itself. In the words of the Professor: “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach at these schools!”

Lewis, C. S. The Chronicles of Narnia. Prince Caspian. The Silver Chair. The Last Battle.
New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1946.
Lewis, C. S. The Screwtape Letters. The Best of C. S. Lewis. New York: Christianity
Today, inc., 1969. 16, 17
Lewis, C. S. The Great Divorce. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1946. 80, 42, 44, 6
Lewis, C. S. That Hideous Strength. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1946.
Lewis, C. S. “The Weight of Glory” and “Transposition.” The Weight of Glory and Other
Addresses. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1962.
Lindsley, Dr. Art. “C. S. Lewis on Absolutes.” Knowing and Doing. C. S. Lewis Institute.
Fall 2002.
Plato. Republic. Desmond Lee, translator. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1974.
Schipper, Edith Watson. Forms in Plato’s Later Dialogues. The Hague, Netherlands:
Martinus Nijoff, 1965.

Lecture notes from “Introduction to Philosophy” Spring 2003 and “Philosophy of Religion” Spring 2004 with Dr. Danaher

07 April 2006

Art as Witness

Nathan (who posted a comment recently on the "Memorizing Poetry" thread) wrote an excellent essay a few years ago for a Regent class, discussing Art as Witness. In responding to three other Christian views of what art is ("Art as Sacrament," "Art as Creation," and "Art as Stewardship"), he dialogues with several important voices in the "what is art?" conversation: David Jones, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Dorothy Sayers, and Regent professor Loren Wilkinson. I highly recommend checking this essay out. Would love to hear what people think of Nathan's ideas. I can't find any holes in his argument. Great stuff!

03 April 2006

Another Platonic Problem

Read: “Ainulindalë” (The Music of the Ainur) from The Silmarillion
Click here for fractal pictures of the Music of the Ainur
Listened to: I also listened to Bruckner’s 4th symphony this weekend, without knowing Rosie had.
Oo, psychic.

Yesterday someone prayed in church something about God’s presence or work “in the spiritual realm and in the physical realm.” That struck me so sharply—a smack, a slap, an epiphany—I almost jumped up shouting in the middle of worship. That is another inheritance from Hellenism! Isn’t it? Two problems with a Platonic philosophy are the dead-sign theory of language and the static nature of the afterlife. Tolkien, I believe, rescued writing from the first problem: with his invention of Elvish, he realised that language presupposes a mythology and a history. As he wrote those, he infused the spiritual “realties” of his imaginary world into his imaginary language, thus showing the integral nature of word and belief. C. S. Lewis rescued Christianity from the other problem, that of an eternal stasis in the realm of pure forms, with his idea of a heaven so much more than earthly reality, with “further up and further in,” with the solidity of “the valley of the shadow of life,” and with the expanding rings of worlds-within-worlds.

OK, but this is another problem, and one specifically aimed at the artist. It seems that Christianity has inherited the idea that the spiritual world and the physical world are just that: two different, separate kingdoms. God rules both, and perhaps they exist side-by-side, maybe they even correspond (each item here being a poor copy of another item there, in a one-to-one relationship), but they are separate. I think I have believed that.

But that CANNOT be true since the incarnation!! It was probably never true, but once God united His entire [spiritual] self to a human [material] existence, the two worlds collided in a disastrous way—disastrous in that now they are one. Everything that happens here happens there, and vice-versa. This is the mystery of prayer: God is doing something, and His people are praying about it. Which came first? Which caused the other? Neither: they are the same action. How could I have thought of them as disjunct realities? I breathe: God has caused me to take that breath. I pray: God has given me the heart to move towards Himself. I take the Lord’s Supper: a spiritual presence occurs, not just a symbol of what happened in the past or what might happen in the future. There is a reality there, a conjunction of heaven and earth.

This is what Charles Williams sees so well. He does not subdivide realities into two categories. That’s why his books appear “totally weird.” He is not surprised if divine lightning flashes forth, piercing an evil man as with a thousand red-hot needles and casting him out through walls into the street. Why not? The man committed a spiritual indecency; with spiritual fire will he be destroyed. Hell can act on earth, for it is present in every wrong choice. Heaven can, also, for it is present in each godly decision (since those come from the Transcendent One in the first place). Williams does not hesitate to suggest that divine power might dwell in a cup, a stone, a ring, or a woman, since those objects/persons are simultaneously existent in the two realms. Or the two realms intersect in it/her. Or there are no two realms, but spirit and matter acting in conjunction.

Why should this surprise me? I am a material creature, animated by a soul; or a soul indwelling a body; or a spirit expressing itself through matter; or a soul-body union. I believe that a person cannot exist without both. The figures posed in “Body Worlds” are not people—only their shells, their earth-suits. A soul without a body is as dead as a body without a soul. That is why resurrection is necessary. After I die, I will not be a person until the Resurrected Lord unites me with a new body. And then I will be able to SEE (and feel, taste, hear, smell…and who knows what else!) the glories of a world into which the division is not longer apparent.

So great art is matter arranged in a particular way by a person who has infused his/her soul into that work. It is made of material stuff (paint, wood, paper, canvas, marble, notes, rhythms, words….) and immaterial stuff (observations, perspectives, opinions, ideas, truths….)

Perhaps Blake is right, that here in our bodies we are caught in “the abyss of the five senses.” Maybe “man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

Or, as Oothoon says in “Visions of the Daughters of Albion”:
They told me that the night & day were all that I could see;
They told me that I had five senses to inclose me up.
And they inclos’d my infinite brain into a narrow circle….

If so, think what an amazing world it will be when those five senses open into a hundred, a thousand, a million, or an infinite number of possible kinds of sensory perception! Or each sense becomes one with all the others, and we see music, hear colors, touch odors, eat noises, drink hues, wear feelings, paint music, dance rainbows, knit scents, ride waves of the color spectrum, feast on symphonies, listen to textures, inhale the whole vast material universe into the lungs of our soul, and exhale epics of eternal experience!!

Great art, then, reveals that unity between two worlds. It shows something more than we can see with our eyes. We listen to Wagner to try to catch the Music of the Ainur that the sea hints (Silmarillion). We look at Turner’s paintings to try to understand the nature of light. We take photographs to try to express something beyond what the landscape itself shows in its “real” context.

Maybe? What do you think? Do I have a logical inconsistency here, that on the one hand I am saying the two worlds are one world, and on the other hand they are two and artist try to reveal one in the other? Or am I trying to say that ineffable things all artists try to say, namely: Look! There it is! Eternity, spirit, myth, heaven, imagination, human soul, the Transcendent, the something-more—I have caught it, and am showing it to you! Look, please look!