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Essay

The Road Ahead
Voices for the Next Twenty-Five Years

Many gifted artists and writers of faith working today were just learning how to read and hold their crayons when Image was founded. They never experienced the culture wars of the eighties that weighed so heavily on an older generation; theirs are a different set of influences and concerns. Do they still need evidence that art informed by faith is alive and well, or is that now a forgone conclusion? We asked a handful of younger writers how and if Image’s mission and focus resonate with them, and what they need Image to be.

Casey N. Cep
Prodigal Sons and Daughters

IN A SHORT ESSAY titled “Postscript: Christianity & Art,” the poet W.H. Auden wrote: “I sometimes wonder if there is not something a bit questionable, from a Christian point of view, about all works of art which make overt Christian references.”

Auden found himself “uneasy” with devotional poets like Donne and Hopkins, whose work is explicitly Christian. According to Auden: “There can no more be a ‘Christian’ art than there can be a Christian science or a Christian diet. There can only be a Christian spirit in which an artist, a scientist, works or does not work.” To illustrate his argument, Auden observed that “a painting of the Crucifixion is not necessarily more Christian in spirit than a still life, and may very well be less.”

I think of Auden’s essay whenever I am asked about Christian art. Usually, those asking are searching for names to fill the putative void of religious artists in contemporary life. They want name upon name to be stacked like sandbags against the rising tide of secularism. Such naming of names can be delightful, providing lists for readers and viewers who wish to find art that takes faith seriously, but it is also tiresome. The sandbagging strategy suggests that there really is a shortage of artists of faith when there is not; it also takes for granted one of the strangest, most spectacular aspects of the Christian faith: the Word made flesh.

That is why Image exists: to take seriously and provide evidence of the Word made flesh. Image encourages artists of faith by providing a home for their work, but also by demonstrating that faithful art takes many forms. It’s poetry and prose; it’s short stories and essays; it’s work that explicitly mentions churches and temples and mosques alongside work that shows faith as it is lived outside of those consecrated spaces.

Artists of faith today must reveal the God who knows no boundaries or borders; the God who lives not only in the sanctuary but on street corners, in apartment buildings, at the train station, on the television, and around the internet; the God who works miracles in the lives of those who profess faith and those who profess atheism; the God who dwells in the whole world and everyone in it.

Image provides a venue for such art, the kind described in Auden’s essay. Auden states more clearly than anyone I’ve read how artists who believe need not write explicitly about belief, how faithful art need not explicitly mention faith. Indeed, as I reflect on my own work, I realize that often setting out to write about belief sabotages the effort. Better is writing from belief: the theological equivalent of show don’t tell.

Writing about the Garden does not require naming one character Adam and another Eve or situating a story amongst daffodils and peonies with a Serpent who comes slithering along in snakelike form. Better to tell the story of any marriage, to write a tale of any two human beings brought together and then torn apart, made for perfection but inured to sin. That kind of story will always be the most Christian for me, even if it never mentions the name of Eden.

Going back to the foundations of the Christian faith, Auden observes that “the only kind of literature which has gospel authority is the parable, and parables are secular stories with no overt religious reference.” I believe he is right. One of the greatest stories ever told is that of the Prodigal Son, a parable from the Gospel of Luke.

Notice, as Auden did, that the parable has no explicitly religious content. There is a man with two sons and a great estate; there are pigs, rings, robes, and sandals. There are no priests or prophets, no synagogues or houses of worship. Yet the parable intimates more of the extravagant grace of God than most of the Epistles of Saint Paul. Our generation needs more parables than it does open letters condemning communities or groups of people for their behavior. Our world is hungry for stories of God’s love, not in some ancient and anachronistic way, but in colloquial language with familiar settings.

Although writing decades ago, Auden preempted so many of the questions that we waste our time asking today about artists of faith. In light of his essay, our modern anxieties about the explicitness of faith in art expose a peculiarly medieval prejudice that places religious vocations above secular ones. Martin Luther, father of the Reformation, understood this when he wrote: “The maid who sweeps her kitchen is doing the will of God just as much as the monk who prays—not because she may sing a Christian hymn as she sweeps but because God loves clean floors.”

Luther rescued the notion of vocation from its religious biases, from the presumption that God called only pastors and not mothers, bankers, nurses, mail carriers, or, dare I say, artists. An incarnate faith like that of Christianity embraces the wondrous fact that the Word became Flesh, dwelling among us, in every inch of this messy, muddled world. “The Christian shoemaker,” Luther wrote, “does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.”

It is not what we do that glorifies God, but how we do it. Let novelists and painters and sculptors and poets and essayists of faith observe that distinction: the Christian artist does her duty not by setting little crosses or crèches in her art, but by producing good art. We need fewer pastors and priests in Christian art and more plumbers and street sweepers living Christian lives, doing Christian works of charity and love. We need characters who look and talk like us, who sin and fall from grace like we do, whose lives are saved and shaped by the same God who saves and shapes our own lives.

There is as much theology being done today in living rooms and shopping malls as churches, so why should artists pretend otherwise? The temptation to make an island of Christian art is every bit as strong as the one to make an island of Christian faith, and that is the greatest temptation of our age. Too often we assume that faithful work can come only from artists who profess faith, denying God’s proven willingness to act through all creatures; too often we presume that the faithfulness of artists is demonstrated by how often they make explicit religious references, rejecting God’s demonstrated willingness to act in all of creation.

Let the tests of orthodoxy be applied to creeds, not works of art; a work’s goodness attests to its faithfulness, not the beliefs and behaviors of its author. Image is a journal that has always and must continue to provide a home for good art. If art is good and beautiful and true, then surely God dwells in it, whether or not the name of God appears in its pages or within its frames. What Image has done for twenty-five years is what it must continue doing for years to come: provide a house for such work and home for the artists who create it.

 

Casey N. Cep is a writer from the eastern shore of Maryland. She has written for The New Republic, New Yorker, New York Times, and Paris Review.

 


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