A Two Year Anniversary Post:
We’re reposting this piece due to the release of our new St. Stephen’s Community Book of Readings, which takes excerpts from this for readings during Epiphany. I hope it gives both encouragement and perspective to the artist of faith in culture once again.
The following is a series of brief thoughts on the arts that I’ll be sharing to kick off St. Stephen’s University’s Arts Week tomorrow in chapel.
The thoughts are by no means exhaustive but are intended to give some framework for the role of creative expression in the world in which we live and to instill a sense of purpose in the creative Christian voice.
VOICES FROM THE HINTERLAND: Reflections on Creativity and the Christian
I’d like to begin these reflections on creativity with a poem that I wrote a few years ago. It’s a poem that gives some sense of meaning and context to my own creative activity and to the creative act in general.
a new star
gripping my desire,
I threw it to the heavens;
I thrust with all my might,
and with all my time
my passion rose like a satellite,
passing through the clouds;
alight on song and string,
begging all the world to hear
it lodged in space and time unknown,
held aloft by sheer delight;
my love now so brightly burning,
the newest star now born.
The Gifts of Memory, Mystery, And Movement
The creative act, it seems to me, is like the birthing of a new star. They say the Orion nebula is like a star factory, pumping out thousands of new, sizzling suns every year. Just like every act of art, the light that hits our eyes on every starlit night carries with it the gifts of memory, mystery, and movement.
Memory is there. Something about the upward tilt of our head before the blackened canvas causes us to remember that our universe is very large, and such revelation typically brings us more of a sense of delight in such grandeur than it does a sense of our own dwarfed position. We remember that we’re as big and as grand as the cosmos, that the universe within us is equally laden with meaning and dignity.
Mystery seems to be present as well, as our minds tingle with formless questions as to which celestial sparks are the farthest, which galaxies the strangest, and what kind of mind could be so fertile as to spawn such rambunctious glory.
Then, there is Movement. The soul seems to move as the light moves; the soul flickers as the light flickers. When ancient star beams hit our atmosphere, we see the effect of air and light that we call a “shimmer.” If we squint at the stars and cause our head to just slightly quiver (as I used to do endlessly on a hill nearby my childhood home), it can almost seem as if the stars are dancing, moving abruptly and fiercely, like us, rather than quietly sitting in a static, stark field.
On the Voice of Art
My task is, in the next few minutes, to lay out a reflection on the vital nature of the arts for the human being and then to specifically engage those ideas with what it means to be follower of Jesus, the Christ. I perceive myself to be an artist, loving the pulse of words and rhythms most in my own forays into the fine arts, but also as one equally enamored with the arts of friendship and laughter, disciplined study, and romantic love. I’m neither an art scholar nor an academic in the truest sense of the word. But I do count myself an aesthete, or a “lover of beauty,” with the best of them.
I care about beauty as a window to God, as a healing balm, as a catalytic agent of justice and freedom and renewal, and as a satisfying drink of cold water to a desert’s thirst. From this posture of awed appreciation, I speak. I also care about beauty as an indication that God is alive and that I am alive as well – that we are made for this rippling creation, and that this artful world all around us holds keys to our own redemption, both inward and outward. In short, I deeply believe in art, not only that it exists, but that it should exist and has powerful purpose for existing. I believe that art speaks, art tells, art beckons, art sings, art calls; art has a voice. I believe that art is from God and mimics if not embodies His voice in both riveting whispers and gravelly growls.
I also believe that most art in our world is broken to some greater or lesser degree. Art reflects the artist, and we are a broken race. Just as anything can be twisted and corrupted by our own blemished voices, so too art can reflect our most base natures. Yet I am unwilling to give up the baby for its murky bathwater. Art finds its origins in God and in the first sentences of Genesis. You and I are destined to create, and out of that act of throwing stars into space, to participate with God in healing, deliverance, and transformation – not the least of which is our own.
I come from a small town in Pennsylvania called “Middletown.” Middletown. I don’t believe a hamlet’s name could be more generic. A meeting was held on that little plot of land a few centuries ago. I can just hear the most influential voice in that gathering suggest, “I think we should name our town according to its geographical position in relation to more interesting places on either side.” Middletown. The name feels more like a gesture than it does a monument; just like the town, it feels like it could come or go at any minute.
For all of my joking about its name, Middletown is where I am from. It’s my home. It’s always been, and as far back as I can remember, when I’ve said the word “home,” I’ve had part of me that thinks of that quirky little village. I’ve often quipped that my life is that of an advocate of middle grounds, always suggesting that extremes have their flaws and advocating the wisdom of mutual understanding and radical centers. And yet, I’m appreciating as I get older that sometimes one voice must be viciously loud and another strikingly soft for a point to find its way through the din of babel that fills the airwaves, and lifewaves, of our age.
Middletown is a bit of what one might call a “hinterland.” According to most dictionaries, a hinterland is a place “in between.” It’s a middle-land if you will. It’s not a large urban center nor is it the coast. It’s not the land into which a dominion plows its money and energies. It’s not the land that is necessarily waste either. A hinterland is a “place in between.” It’s a place inland from the free and inspiring vistas of the coasts, and it’s a place outland from the stabilities and governments of the big city. It’s neither here nor there.
It’s the back country, the hidden bush, the small town, where forces both dark and light are at work, where questions can be asked without immediate suggestions of recalcitrance or rebellion. It is the land where poetry can simply suggest, or query, or lift, or bend, or stumble over itself in an endless quest for finer and finer nuances of meaning. On the borders, on the edges, pioneering and protecting decisions must be made. In the cities, in the centers, those decisions are reinforced and resourced for the good of all. In the hinterlands, however, in the middle-grounds, we can often more freely search for meaning in a meaning-filled world.
Voices from the Hinterland
In the beginning of time, a sacred world took the stage. God created, it says in the first verse of the first book of the First Book. All beauty came from God, brimming with truth and vibrant with the full spectrums of life and light and sound and scape. There something broke, someone fell, burning deep shadows onto the lands of light. Now, neither in the center, nor on the fringe, but rather in a no-man’s land, we wander. The hinterland, it seems, is our home. To those living on the edges, making the adventurous look tame and screaming for wilder ways, we lift our voice. To those living in the center, deciding on decisions, protecting trustees of the sacral rules, we lift our voice.
To express oneself in art is to incarnate our hinterland questions, perceptions, ideas, and feelings. It is also to incarnate truth from less obvious places in our souls. Author Madeleine L’Engle said in her book Walking on Water, “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 birth-giver. In a very real sense, the artist should be like Mary, who, when the angel told her that she was to bear the Messiah, was obedient to the command. I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius or something very small, comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.’” From the back country of our hearts and lives, we speak the unutterable; we tempt the fairies to come forward and to tell the world they exist. We give voice to profound realities that lead us to God and to ourselves, and then, often, back again.
The Aesthetic Voice
As creators, we speak in many voices. Art is often spoken of in the term “aesthetics.” We know the definition of this word by its opposite – anaesthetic. Anaesthetics are those things which numb and dim both pain and pleasure impulses. Aesthetics, by contrast, are those things which sensitize, revitalize, and make one simply more aware. The artist lifts his or her voice from the hinterlands of our questions, hopes, dreams, and senses and “makes aware” those who have been numbed by either the shouts of the revolutionary edge or the silence of the mundane and repetitive center.
The artist who follows Jesus raises his or her aesthetic voice in paint or poem or song or sketch to uncover the wound, to suggest its healing or its actual state, and to somehow aid its healing by directing attention (sometimes by invoking more pain) to the wounds we bear.
The Authentic Voice
Art, if it is anything, is authentic to its creator. It is real. It doesn’t come primarily from the outside in, as if some objective fact could burst on the scene and demand that you paint it or say it or sing it. Art comes from the inside, from our gut response to the world or an experience or a thought so primal it threatens the life of its thinker. The art bears our personality along with it, like a ship carried by a raging river. The creation reflects its creator. The artist lifts his or her voice from the hinterlands of our perceptions, impulses, and faith and demands that shrouds be lifted and masks be removed before the party continues.
The artist who follows Jesus raises his or her authentic voice in melody or movement or rhythm or rhyme to unmask the imposter, to reveal our strong or weak estate, and to somehow draw honesty like water from the rock-hard personas we create to hide ourselves.
The Artistic Voice
Art is endemic to the human race. Creativity is a must. We were made to create, whether through forms of right-brained creativity or left-brained creativity. Creativity is the surest sign that there is no such thing as a secular world – a place or time where God is not welcome or is ever completely shut out. Even the most adamant atheist creates and expresses and revels in the curve of a line, the turn of a phrase, or the sound of a symphony. The artist lifts his or her voice from the hinterlands of our belief systems, trust, and delights and offers a new way of saying something timeless, often eternal, to the weary ears of the listener.
The artist who follows Jesus raises his or her artistic voice in story or sound or prose or print to declare that God is alive, that we are alive, and that there is no place where the possibility of shared, divine-human relationship is not. Art prophesies to the world that there is a God not only in heaven but also on earth who is not divorced from His creation, but rather has drawn near.
I’m from Middletown, and in some ways, so are you. We are from a small place between two bigger places, a hinterland, really, in the grand scheme of things. Today, I’ll do that for which I was created. I will create from this strange, nondescript, in-between land. I will feel part of the pain that’s been and part of the glory to come. I’ll do so as I live from the vibrant joy that comes from believing in the Incarnation, the reality that God knows humankind intimately, and that humankind may now know Him back just as intimately.
To be a Christian, it seems, is to create from the living center of hope and to aesthetically, authentically and artistically raise our voices to declare that love has come and redemption has entered this good, yet fallen, creation. Our voice may sing questions, or it may suggest answers; the hinterland will never leave us. And yet, you and I must raise our voices from this place for God, for ourselves, and for others who will hear glory and reality in our trembling words.
In a thousand ways, lift your voice to speak from the hinterland you call your own. Amid the screams from the wilder borders and the soliloquies of sedated centers, your voice will eventually be heard.