Art Helping Us See God

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Art Helping People See God

A kindergarten teacher was observing her classroom of children while they drew. She would occasionally walk around to see each child’s artwork. As she came to one little girl who was working diligently, she asked what the drawing was. The girl replied, “I’m drawing God.” The teacher paused and said, “But no one knows what God looks like.” Without missing a beat, or looking up from her drawing, the girl replied, “They will in a minute.”

Recently I was asked to deliver a devotional to the board of IMAGE Journal, a glorious periodical that grapples with the intersection of faith, art and mystery. Taking up the subject of how art helps us “see God,” I observed that in the last years of his life Tolstoy gathered his favorite thoughts in a daily reader.

Like Tolstoy instead of a scriptural exposition, I compiled a collection of quotes on how the arts help people see God, which I now share with you. Consider it a chance to sneak a peak at the “kindergarten drawing.”

Done properly art illuminates the path to God. The late Madeleine L Engle said, “we don’t want to feel less when we have finished a book; we want to feel that new possibilities have been opened to us. We don’t want to close a book with a sense that life is totally unfair and that there is no light in the darkness; we want to feel that we have been given illumination.”

Art that connects is art that flows from and connects to personal pain and fallenness. Julian of Norwich prayed a simple prayer: “O God, please give me three wounds; the wound of contrition and the wound of compassion and the wound of longing after God.” Then she added this little postscript which I think is one of the most beautiful things I have ever read: ‘This I ask without condition.'”

Rabbi Abraham Heschel insisted “unless God is of central importance, God is of no importance at all.” So Bono explains, “the music that really turns me on is either running toward God or away from God. Both recognize the pivot; that God is at the centre of the jaunt.”

Art explores mystery. In his novel As It Is In Heaven Irish writer Niall Williams tells the story of a man whose wife and daughter are killed in a head on collision with a drunk driver. On the opening page he sets the tone, “there are only three great puzzles in the world. The puzzle of love, the puzzle of death, and between each of these and part of both of them, the puzzle of God. God is the greatest puzzle of all.”

Many artists, even irreligious ones experience the transcendent while making their art. I think this is because humans are created in the image of a creative God and when we practice our craft and do it well we connect with God. Novelist John Updike confessed to this when he said, “I feel I am closest to God when writing. You’re singing praises. You’re describing the world, as it is. And even if the passages turn out sordid or depressing, there’s something holy about the truth.”

J.R.R. Tolkien said that artists are “sub-creators and as such, even their best work should be done humbly in recognition of their inadequacy as tools in Gods hands. James Lee Burke (one of only two authors to win two Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America) describes the artist as an unworthy co-creator with God: “God might choose fools and people who glow with neurosis for his partners in creation, but he doesn’t make mistakes.”

Today’s artist will be tempted to “dumb down” their work to make it relevant in a superficial age, a problem identified by national book award winner Jonathan Franzen, who after the success of his novel, The Corrections clarified the challenge, “the novelist has more and more to say to readers who have less and less time to read: where to find the energy to engage a culture in crisis when the crisis consists in the impossibility of engaging the culture?”

The stakes are high, but art that illuminates the path to God is essential in a polluted age where souls are gasping for the fresh spiritual air.

So I end with Annie Dillard advising writers. “Assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?”

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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