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Where does our service lie?: The Christian Artist and the Church (Part 2)

July 17, 2010

Last week I brought up the topic of how we might think about the relationship of the artist to the church, raising some questions about the nature of both “Christian art” and the artist’s sense of membership with the church. It is with these questions in mind that the thoughts of Catholic writer (and Georgia native…I couldn’t resist!) Flannery O’Connor might prove to be helpful. Unlike Calvin Seerveld, O’Connor maintains that the artist sees her art first in relationship with the world and understands that the faith of the artist cannot be detached from “his vision of what-is.”[1] The limitations of art itself should determine her production of art rather than any limitations set by the church.

But don’t let this fool you. The church is not disconnected from the artistic process in O’Connor’s vision. She reminds us that the Christian artist should also remain grounded in the church, and the church, in fact, is what insures the artist’s freedom to work creatively within the world. O’Connor maintains that the church provides the artist with a sense of mystery and the possibility of grace, both of which are necessary to the artist’s evaluation of the world as it really is. The problem with many views of the Christian artist is that they suppose this sense of grace must be cut off from the world, and that the artist must communicate abstract truths. But O’Connor argues that “you cannot show the operation of grace when grace is cut off from nature or when the very possibility of grace is denied, because no one will have the least idea of what you are about.”[2] By presenting the world as it is rather than proving truths through abstraction, the artist’s work naturally reveals spiritual truths about the world.[3] Furthermore, being a Christian artist does not mean the production of explicitly “Christian art.” O’Connor’s own artistic depiction of the grotesque reflects her view that to get at the spiritual heart of matters in this world, one need not attend to explicitly spiritual subjects. Sometimes it is the lack of the spiritual that leads us to an understanding of the need for its presence.

The Christian artist’s sense of membership, then, is to be grounded in the reality of the created world and, at the same time, in the church from which she gains her understanding of the world’s true nature. Seerveld, and O’Connor would both agree that the artist must make a choice regarding involvement within a particular community and that artistic creation must take place within the realm of that membership. But O’Connor ultimately leads us to conclude that the Christian’s path is not as bifurcated as we think. The Christian artist is not forced to choose between good and evil, or between the church and world. It is in her attendance to the way the world really is, in all its good and evil, that the artist becomes placed not in a divided membership, but in a unity of “grace and nature” that suggests a truly Christian character for human artistry.


[1] Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 147.

[2] O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, 166.

[3] Ibid., 145-46.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 17, 2010 10:51 am

    Readers of this posting may enjoy a discussion of the artist and the church from a practical standpoint recently published in COMMENT by Dayton Castleman, a sculptor and conceptual artist living and working in Chicago: http://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/2072/

  2. tim permalink
    July 17, 2010 2:16 pm

    Wonderful post, Jenn. Thanks!

    Here’s a further thought:
    O’Connor also relates the significance of limitation and art to the incarnation – God as a limited human being. Giving advice to young writers, she references fiction as being “so very much an incarnational art,” and then claims, “The fact is that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you” (Myster and Manners, p. 68)

    Putting off for now the theological implications and import of calling fiction an “incarnational art,” the irony of the incarnation not being a grand enough job for the young writers should not be lost. The incarnation reference serves to create an analogy between the lofty goals of art and the lofty goals of God’s redemption of the world. Yet both goals are achieved through the humble and “dusty” means of enfleshing a very limited humanity, not by escaping such limitation or pulling humanity out of its limitations. This perspective on limitation pervades O’Connor’s work because she prophetically challenged a culture that believed, and still believes, in the opposite of limitation.

  3. July 19, 2010 4:58 am

    Interesting thoughts. Thanks for sharing.

    Some of your comments in the last paragraph–“It is in her attendance to the way the world really is, in all its good and evil”–made me think about a quote by Oscar Wilde (saw it as a status on fb today). He writes, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written.” I don’t think I agree with this, but maybe Wilde’s point is that literature is about reality, which simply is. Maybe? (Of course, an author can choose to emphasize moral or immoral aspects of reality.)

    • Jenn permalink*
      July 21, 2010 10:52 am

      DJ,
      That’s interesting, and there could very well be a connection. I wonder what the context of that particular quote is? It actually reminds me of another quote by Wendell Berry that says that artists are, “either good or bad, responsible or irresponsible.” It seems like in both cases, and in relation to O’Connor as well, that good or bad art is related to its truthfulness. By paying attention to the world as it exists for us right now, by uncovering aspects of that world that are both good and bad, and by being truthful in their depiction of those various elements (for example, O’Connor was often criticized for her failure to “tone down” the racist attitude that pervaded the American South at that time) artists are more likely to produce art that is “Christian” than if they attempted to produce specifically Christian themes or abstracted Christian ideas. As to the matter of art being moral or immoral, I don’t think I have a good answer. My intuition tells me that some art will of course have moral or immoral implications or echoes, but as to what that nature of this element is, I’ll have to humbly plead ignorance.

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