Unredeemable Art and Wise Words From Madeleine L’Engle

When it comes to favorite art, I have an ever-growing list of guilty pleasures, a […]

CJ Green / 11.17.14


When it comes to favorite art, I have an ever-growing list of guilty pleasures, a term which usually refers to some kind of light-hearted or even redeemable creation. Today, I’m not going to write about redemption in Taylor Swift’s new album (“It’s fun though…”). I’m more interested in the less redeemable batch, art that remains thoroughly, maybe explicitly, irreligious. Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, for example, traces the loss of religion in a young man’s life but is resonant and powerful. Or, I’m thinking of James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now, about two teenagers and the mistakes they make: the end. Or even the anonymous Berlin Wall art, representing free expression but also separation, anger, pain. All of this, of course, is good art, and that’s the problem. There’s passion and nuance; there’s chaos and cosmos; there is, more often than not, a perfect soundtrack or font selection or color scheme; there are no Christ figures.

I recently came across Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle’s reflections on faith and art. L’Engle authored the renowned children’s classic, A Wrinkle in Time, among other books, and maintains a daringly unconventional perspective on art:

A_wrinkle_in_time_digest_2007Aeschylus writes, “In our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” We see that wisdom and that awful grace in the silence of the Pieta; in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poems; in Poulenc’s organ concerto; but we do not find it in many places where we would naturally expect to find it. This confusion comes about because much so-called religious art is in fact bad art, and therefore bad religion. Those angels rendered by grown-ups who obviously didn’t believe in angels…are only one example. Some of those soppy pictures of Jesus, looking like a tubercular, fair-haired, blue-eyed goy, are far more secular than a Picasso mother and child.

Perhaps problems reside less in a given artwork’s religious affiliations and more in the observer’s willingness to label it “Christian” or not. L’Engle touches on this:

…perhaps the reason I shuddered at the idea of writing something about “Christian art” is that to paint a picture or to write a story or to compose a song is an incarnational activity. The artist is a servant who is willing to be a birthgiver. In a very real sense the artist (male or female) should be like Mary who, when the angel told her that she was to bear the Messiah, was obedient to the command.”

To create art, in any form, is a spiritual activity. To create art is to acknowledge the existence of some deeper reality; to pull up to the surface something otherworldly.

L’Engle continues:

Stories, no matter how simple, can be vehicles of truth; can be, in fact, icons. It’s no coincidence that Jesus taught almost entirely by telling stories, simple stories dealing with the stuff of life familiar to the Jews of his day. Stories are able to help us to become more whole, to become Named. And Naming is one of the impulses behind all art; to give a name to the cosmos we see despite all the chaos.

God asked Adam to name all the animals, which was asking Adam to help in the creation of their wholeness. When we name each other, we are sharing in the joy and privilege of incarnation, and all great works of art are icons of Naming.

When we look at a painting, or hear a symphony, or read a book, and feel more Named, then, for us, that work is a work of Christian art. But to look at a work of art and then to make a judgment as to whether or not it is art, and whether or not it is Christian, is presumptuous. It is something we cannot know in any conclusive way. We can know only if it speaks within our own hearts, and leads us to living more deeply with Christ in God.

One of my professors, Dr. Caroline Gordon, a deeply Christian woman, told our class, “We do not judge great art. It judges us.” And that very judgment may enable us to change our lives, and to renew our commitment to the Lord of Creation.

Art on my guilty pleasures list cannot be interpreted as convoluted allegories for Scripture. Often, the focus is humanity—human figures. If only there were Christ figures, then I wouldn’t feel so guilty. Luckily I’m not the only one attracted to the idea of human-centric art: God, in creating the greatest story ever, used a human figure, too, who was Christ. Begotten, not made, he took on flesh. He subjected himself to the world with which I inevitably love, and it’s around this man, this bleeding man, that the coolest art of all revolves.

L’Engle continues: “There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.”