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Narrative Persuasion

October 29, 2010

I recently asked 24 young artists[1] who were Christians to consider two questions:

What does your craft require of you?

What does the church require of your craft?

Their answers revealed the tensions they felt trying to “fit” into two worlds whose differing values seemed to pull them in opposite directions. As young, emerging artists they felt keenly the need to obey the “rules” of the art establishment in which they hoped to find success, one which dictated from within the trends and criteria of the contemporary art world. The boundary pushing lauded in one realm was often at odds with a “church world” for whom moral considerations of “content” meant dismissal of art that might be “offensive” or simply misunderstood. In their experience, the church asked of their art only an augmentative role: illustrating that which was already being communicated in words, with direction as to “end-product” often provided (or as felt, dictated) by a non-artist.

For them, the church seemed to perceive art from two perspectives: one a fearful and hesitating caution, concerning something not quite to be trusted or allowed to roam freely, and the other as something, recognized as valuable but primarily as a means to accomplish its program. Art was “useful”.

This is not every artist’s experience, of course, and some find church environments in which their craft thrives and is given room to flourish.  However, that young artists find themselves struggling with this bifurcation of artistic identity highlights the need to provide a way forward in dialogue between the non-artists and the artists in the church.

Suspicion and ignorance are often cloaked in emotions that can build walls to open dialogue when approached head on. While there is a place and need for a systematic deconstruction of and wrestling with these issues and concerns (the animosity, fear, or misunderstanding of the nature of human artistry) and their power to shape one’s response to the arts within the church, I would like to suggest an exploration of narrative as a more winsomely persuasive, back-door approach to ameliorating the tension.

The letters between Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain and Jean Cocteau[2] (avant-garde poet, among other arts) recount Cocteau’s slow conversion to faith through the lens of the steady hand of a pursuing God. What makes this beautifully poetic story compelling is the manner in which Cocteau reassesses each life event (including his friendships with troubled artists such as Erik Satie and his opium addiction) and interprets them as the tools by which God drew him out. As Maritain describes it to Cocteau: “God kept on pressing you.”[3] Equally amazing is the gentle and patient friendship of Maritain, whose admiration of Cocteau’s poetry began long before his conversion to faith.  Maritain does not demonize art, but holds it in high regard, and does not count as worthless or incidental that which was created along the journey to faith.

…Poetry is an image of divine grace. And because it brings to light the allusions scattered throughout nature, and because nature is an allusion to the Kingdom of God, poetry gives us, without knowing it, a foreshadowing, an obscure desire for the supernatural life. I remember how Baudelaire put it: “It is at once by poetry and through poetry, by and through music, that the soul catches a glimpse of the splendours lying beyond the grave.[4]

It is Maritain’s love of art and deep conviction of God’s constant sovereign working that shines through the pages of this short work, and it is that framework which provides a powerful biographical example of an approach to the arts that does not view them as enemy but instead as an ally whose very nature serves to fit one “for the life of the spirit.” [5]

Art and faith are thus woven together in a full embrace of both identities; no disapproving “Pharisee” hangs in the background. Could such stories (already a compelling medium in our time), which allow interaction with ideas and values not yet held by the reader, open space for dialogue between the church and its artists?

Tanya Walker is pursuing a PhD in Divinity from the University of St Andrews. Her research interests include the relationship between the church and the artist and the theological rationale for engagement with the arts.

Image Credit


[1] All were university students between the ages of 18 and 25.
[2] Jacques Maritain, Art and Faith, trans. J. Coleman, (New York: The Philosophical Libraray, Inc., 1948).
[3] Ibid., 82.
[4] Ibid., 90.
[5] Ibid., 94.

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