The Word-Soaked World
Troubling the Lexicon of Art and Faith
Since 1989, Image has hosted a conversation at the nexus of art and faith among writers and artists in all forms. As the conversation has evolved, certain words have cropped up again and again: Beauty. Mystery. Presence.
For this issue, we invited a handful of past contributors to examine our common lexicon as a sort of personal inventory on the part of the journal. Were there words we were using too glibly, we asked, words that needed to be reconsidered, revitalized, or tossed out?
The writers’ responses surprised us. Some pieces retain an element of that self-critical spirit we requested, such as the essays on beauty and suffering. But the majority of the essays ended up as a referendum on the power of language, like art itself, to represent and reveal. Words, the writers seemed to say, deserve to be weighed heavily. On consideration, some words that seem simple or obvious are more demanding than we think.
Language is double-edged. On the one hand, the ability to call things by their names can connect us to others, and can anchor an artist in the created world. Perhaps language itself even offers an image of the divine. Some would even go so far as to say that language is what makes religious experience possible.
But at times, even after long wrestling and careful study, language can seem inadequate, more a stumbling stone than a pathway. Sometimes language seems able only to point to things just outside its reach, things we crave but can’t grasp, things we dare not approach, things we draw back from in awe or revulsion.
This collection of short essays demonstrates the push-pull relationship believing artists have with words: We are in pursuit of a God who is revealed through the poetry of the oldest Psalms, but whose true name is impossible to pronounce.
FAIR WARNING: This will be a free-range rumination. How else to try and capture what the word “story” might mean?
For starters, story is the engine and vehicle and highway all at once of what matters during the brief lives we have been given. Indeed, story is so important and so all-encompassing that the disassociation from the narrative arc—the story—of our lives is always seen as a malfunction: on one side of the coin is amnesia and Alzheimer’s, the loss of one’s memory, one’s own history; on the other lies antisocial personality disorder, hallmark indicators of which include “the incapacity to experience guilt and to profit from experience,” and the “callous unconcern for the feelings of others and lack of the capacity for empathy.” In other words, the disengagement from the story of oneself in relation to others.
Either way, whether we have forgotten our story or become physiologically or psychologically unhinged from it, we are adrift without it. We are not who we are. The paradox, of course, is that if one loses the story of one’s life, that disassociation becomes one’s story. That’s how all-encompassing story is: it even expands to include its own break with itself.
But already I’m looking down a hall of mirrors, and I get ahead of myself.
Here is a sentence from C.S. Lewis’s 1938 science fiction novel Out of the Silent Planet: “We do not truly see light, we only see slower things lit by it, so that for us light is on the edge—the last thing we know before things become too swift for us.”
The book isn’t, in my opinion, a great one. Lewis wrote better ones. But the context is that Ransom, the hero, after having been kidnapped and transported from earth to the planet Malacandra, finds himself meeting with a bona fide sorn, one of the Seroni race that inhabits the planet (this is one of those science fiction novels littered with exotic names). The noble sorn—this particular one’s name is Augray—tells Ransom something of the characteristics of another set of beings, the elusive, benevolent yet judicious, angel-like Eldil.
Nearly tangible, nearly invisible, these beings are so swift that the only apprehensible evidence of them is their light, or the light they leave on the edge of things—that glance of illumination that allows us to see the thing we see when light reflects off it. The Eldila are rulers of planets in our galaxy, supreme judges whose edicts are final and unimpeachable and true; they are, in Lewis’s sci-fi world, benevolent gods.
I believe that this edge of light—this benevolent and judicious thing we can’t quite touch but which allows us to know, which allows us to see—is the essence of story, and why story matters so very much. It is only through the reflected light of story that we know life itself; it is only through the illumination story gives us that we are able to see the narrative arc of our existence, and so ourselves. Jesus says, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the light of life.” Christ is that light by which we can see our lives fully and in truth; the story of Christ allows us to know our own story—to put ourselves into God’s proper context—to see ourselves as created beings. We understand, finally, who we are.
I think this is something we all want, whether we will admit to it or not. We want to know the context into which we can place ourselves—our story—so that we can know that we matter. This longing to understand how we fit, this desire for that swift light we cannot grasp and yet recognize as integral to who we are, Lewis calls sehnsucht, a German word we might come close to understanding as an intense desire for somewhere we may never have been. It’s a compound word whose roots are yearning and addiction. Lewis elaborates on the notion in his monumental sermon “The Weight of Glory”:
Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter…. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing…. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
And in the afterword of the third edition of The Pilgrim’s Regress, Lewis offers perhaps a more tangibly evocative portrait of this same sense of longing, but one that, all the same, is as glancing as what it tries to describe. This feeling is an “unnamable something,” he writes, the “desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of ‘Kubla Khan,’ the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.”
And this mention right here, right now, of a bonfire and falling waves brings me back immediately—even more quickly than that—to being a boy in southern California, and bonfires in the concrete fire rings on the beach down at Huntington, me tired and sunburned and happy at the end of a long day of bodysurfing and now cooking hotdogs over that fire, the hood of my sweatshirt pulled up against the evening damp and chill, tied tight at the chin by my mother, the crashing of the waves muffled by that hood but still there. I am there.
So fleeting and brittle is the comfort and joy of this memory, a memory that seems in its way to define the story of my childhood, that the mere mention of the grains of beach sand inevitably blown into the hotdog bun that grind between my teeth as I take that first bite, or of the acid burn earlier in the day when what seemed a gallon of saltwater washed up my nose when a wave surprised me, or of the raw cut of smoke into my eyes as I sit beside that beloved bonfire—the mention of any one of these facts brings the whole contraption, my holding tight to that way into the joy I think I knew back then, to a collapse. The feeling is gone, its only hope for resurrection my ignoring the reality of what it means to be a kid at a bonfire at the beach.
Our lives—all of our stories—are riddled with these moments, with these falsehoods of memory and desire but moments to which we return time and time again. Our searching through them with this sense of sehnsucht, despite that grit between our teeth, is in essence an effort to create our own genres of thought, of memory, of story. We are trying to hold tight to that edge of light, despite that smoke in our eyes as we sit beside the bonfire.
Genre is defined as—and I gave you fair warning as to the roving nature of this essay—“a category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.” Genre, that is, is the form story takes; it is the lens through which story is transmitted, that aperture through which we can glimpse the swift glint of light that is story. If story is the engine, vehicle, and highway all at once of our brief time here on earth, then genre is the make and model of the vehicle, the engine’s design, whether V-8 or hybrid or even full-on electric; genre is, too, the route we choose, whether back road or interstate or residential streets.
It is through genre that we believe we may find what we were looking for, and find how to get there. Genre gives us familiarity, a kind of comfort, something we already know, because we believe beforehand we know it already, and yet still we return, because it wasn’t quite there to begin with, and we continue to search for it.
Here is that hall of mirrors again: We seek in genre the story we have sought all along, and believe we will know when we find it, but haven’t yet. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Go into any bookstore, and what you will see most readily at hand are a plethora of books that work within genres: fantasy, sci-fi, romance and horror and thriller and espionage. Crime and Southern, Christian pioneer and dystopian, and my favorite new genre, as named by Barnes and Noble, Teen Paranormal Romance.
Oh, and that disdained and shivering little orphan of a genre, literary.
So why do people buy these books? Why do people buy the same novel again and again? And why do they remain, generally speaking, true to the genre they have chosen? While researching this free-range mosey of an essay, I uncovered the industry factoid that there are no extant purchasing records that indicate anyone who has ever read all the Stephenie Meyer books then moved on to Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six series.
Why this allegiance to genre?
It is because people have seen within a genre the glint of light they were looking for in the first place, that moment of recognition of what they didn’t know but know all the same. For a moment, a book has delivered them a glimpse of the doorway in, and quenched, however fleetingly, their sense of sehnsucht. The book has given them a glint of light: it has delivered story and brought them to the brink of their own far-off country.
People find within the genre they choose the familiarity and comfort they know will be there, whether in horror, or suspense, or the imagined arms of a lover named Andrea who has an eye patch and wives in three other ports. Or who is a werewolf. Especially a teen werewolf.
People return to the genre they do because they hope to find what they have glimpsed before, compelled by that glimpse of light to glimpse it yet again. I believe people return to their genres of choice—and now I expand what I mean by genre from different kinds of books to whole artforms—because of this encounter.
As Christian believers, we know that genuine glimpse of light, the light on the edge of what we see, to be Christ. Yet the world—and I include myself here—can be dangerously blinded from that light by the false light of Satan, a light that takes prisoners and breeds within them a kind of Stockholm syndrome that forces its adherents to identify the genre as being more important than the truth that may be glimpsed. The danger of genre is that we may make it the dumb idol Lewis warns of if we mistake it for story itself. For genre is not the thing itself; genre is only the scent of a flower we have not found, to paraphrase Lewis; genre is the echo of a tune we have not heard, and genre is that news from a country we have never yet visited. Story, as embodied by Christ, is that country, is that tune, and is that flower.
We see this worshipping of genre in many ways every day. Hence so many crappy books in our bookstores, so many crappy horror movies, so many crappy video games and CDs and comic books.
Over the last year my younger son Jacob’s wife Sarah and I have taken to watching a television program we both love. Levelheaded Melanie and Jacob, who is likewise blessed with a practicality I do not possess, will have no part in this, for they believe it to be a bunch of hooey, though Sarah and I refuse to cave when it comes to the perhaps-myth that is the show’s subject. We watch the program, and we are intrigued by it, and we laugh at it, poke holes in it, ridicule it. And still we watch.
You’ll find it on Animal Planet, this show. It’s called—and now as I gird my loins to name it I am having second thoughts at admitting this at all; yet I watch it, and I trust the point I want to make will be worth my embarrassing myself.
The program is called Finding Bigfoot, and is a weekly reality program in which a group of researchers, the Bigfoot Field Research Organization (they all wear ball caps with the initials BFRO above the bill), visits a different town in which Bigfoot might have been seen. At the beginning of each episode there’s a gathering together of citizens from that week’s town—a sort of sasquatch town-hall meeting—at which the BFRO ask those in attendance who among them has had encounters with Bigfoot, and then they return to the scenes of the sightings. Always at night, the researchers gear up with infrared cameras, separate into pairs, and march through the woods. They film everything, make sounds like bigfeet make—apparently they like to bang rocks together—and always some small piece of evidence turns up, something that leads them to believe that yes, Bigfoot was here.
One episode involved their finding a footprint in mud near where a citizen had reported encountering a sasquatch. It was definitely a footprint—you could see that right there in the mud—but it wasn’t quite as big as what a sasquatch might leave. Though no one said as much, it looked more like a human print.
The BFRO squad discussed it among themselves, and finally arrived, via an extraordinary backflip of rational thought, that the footprint was most likely left by, and I quote, “a juvenile sasquatch.” No mention, of course, of its possibly being that of an adult human, because that would have destroyed the possible reality of the myth they were on television to promote, although Sarah and I aren’t actually prepared to admit it’s a myth—who knows?
I tell you this embarrassing story of my son’s wife and me watching, at once rapt and laughing, the dumb idol Finding Bigfoot every week—I even have it queued up on the TiVo—so as to try to follow to the end this attempt to understand why story matters.
This: we desire myth. We desire lore. Imagine this: on an episode of Finding Bigfoot the BFRO actually finds one. What then? The show would be over within the season, because the myth would have been proven true, and its mystery, its possibility, its myth would all be gone.
We want to believe, whether we believe it or not. And it appears that at this moment the one thing we don’t want to believe in is the true myth of Christ. We are more than happy to see a footprint the size of a man’s and believe it a juvenile sasquatch—and I indict myself, too, because I am more than happy to watch this show. Likewise our culture is more than happy to engage its sense of sehnsucht in the myth of Harry Potter and the Twilight gang, and yes, The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, than it is in engaging in the one true myth, that of Christ born, killed, and risen from the dead.
This desire is why I return again and again to the myth of evenings on the beach down at Huntington, my sweatshirt hood tied off in its perfect mother-bow at my chin, and why I indulge in a memory of hotdogs and bodysurfing despite that grit between my teeth, that smoke in my eyes.
And it is why, if I may write down such a private thing, I have requested of my wife that when I am on my deathbed she read to me The Lord of The Rings, because of its majesty, its beauty, its exquisite evocation of a world I have never visited but feel perhaps I have, a far-off country that resides in myth only, but is true all the same.
In his essay “Myth Became Fact,” Lewis writes:
Myth is the mountain whence all the different streams arise which become truths down here in the valley…. A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it.
Story matters, to say the least. We desire it from the depths of our hearts, and the one true one—the only true myth down through the ages—is the story that is Jesus Christ. It is a myth, it is history; it is the story—the greatest ever told—and its light is blinding, illuminating all of history, reflecting Truth back to a ravening world lost in its darkness, disengaged from the story of itself in relation to its creator God, adrift and longing in its heart for entry into a far-off country it knows already and hasn’t yet discovered.
Bret Lott is the author of fourteen books, including Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, on Being a Christian.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.