Art, Faith, and the Stewardship of Culture

What is the role of art and the imagination in the contemporary church? Gregory Wolfe explores this question at a time when the public feels alienated from contemporary art and an uneasy relationship exists between Christians and contemporary culture.
by Gregory Wolfe | Source:
Has there ever been a time when the public has been more alienated from the world of contemporary art—the art being produced in their own day and age? It’s hard to imagine. That alienation is obvious where the visual arts and classical music are concerned, but it also permeates the relationship between the public and the serious literature of our time. The reasons for this estrangement are numerous, and go beyond our era’s love affair with pop culture and the general dumbing down of our society. There are more complex factors at work here, factors that include everything from the emergence of modern art forms a century ago to the changing roles of technology, media, and the economics of making and “consuming” art.

What I would like to focus on in this essay, however, is the more specific issue of the uneasy relationship between Christians and contemporary culture. Having spent the last decade publishing and editing Image, a journal that endeavors to relate religion and the arts, I have done a great deal of reflecting on the role of art and the imagination in the contemporary church. While there are many hopeful signs in the church and in our culture as a whole, there are also some disturbing trends. It is my conviction that the Christian community, despite its many laudable efforts to preserve traditional morality and the social fabric, has abdicated its stewardship of culture and, more importantly, has frequently chosen ideology rather than imagination when approaching the challenges of the present.

If this approach remains the dominant one, then the community of believers will be squandering a remarkable opportunity. There are signs in our society that people are hungering for a deeper spiritual life. Baby Boomers are aging and feeling guilty about their youthful abandonment of religion. There may be more genuine openness to religious faith—in the sense of curiosity and yearning—than at almost any time in a century. One of the powerful ways that believers can speak to that yearning is through the arts—and through faith that is informed by the human imagination. Whether the church will respond or not will determine its willingness to be a steward of culture.

There is no doubt that we live in a fragmented and secularized society—the polar opposite of the unified Christian culture that writers like Dante, Chaucer, and Milton took for granted when they penned their religious poems, or that Fra Angelico and Michelangelo assumed when they painted church walls and ceilings. The twentieth century witnessed art that frequently mocked religious faith, indulged in nihilism and despair, and engaged in political propaganda. Many artists have created works that are so difficult to apprehend that the disjuncture between the “elitist” art world and the “populist” world of art-consumption has widened into a dark chasm. The estrangement between the creators of art and their public is one of the facts we all take for granted.

Within the Christian community there have been many different approaches to modern culture. Some of the mainline denominations have followed a liberal ethos that welcomes new trends in secular culture. Evangelicals and fundamentalists have moved in the opposite direction, retreating into a fortress mentality and distrusting the “worldly” products of mainstream culture—so much so that they have created an alternative subculture. To simplify somewhat, you might say that whereas liberals lack Christian discernment about culture, conservatives have just withdrawn from culture.

Among Christians who care about the arts, there are many who cling to the works of a few figures, such as J.R.R. Tolkien, T.S. Eliot, and Flannery O’Connor—writers who have forged a compelling religious vision in the midst of a secular age. But the danger in celebrating these Christian artists is that we isolate them from their cultural context, from the influences that shaped their art. Many believers have essentially given up on contemporary culture; they may admire a few writers here or there, but they do not really believe that Western culture can produce anything that might inform and deepen their own faith. One might almost say that these individuals have given in to despair about our time. For me, the most depressing trend of all is the extent to which Christians have belittled or ignored the imagination and succumbed to politicized and ideological thinking.

Perhaps the best way to get a purchase on this situation is by looking into the phrase that has come to describe the present social and political climate—the phenomenon known as the “culture wars.” In his book on the subject, the sociologist James Davison Hunter describes the two warring factions as the progressives and the traditionalists (terms that are synonyms for liberals and conservatives). The progressives are, by and large, secularists who believe that the old Judeo-Christian moral codes are far too restrictive; they actively campaign for new definitions of sexuality, the family, and the traditional ideas about birth and death—the “life” issues. Traditionalists, clinging to what they see as the perennial truths of their religious and cultural heritage, wage a rear-guard action against the innovations wrought by the progressives. Issues such as abortion and euthanasia, homosexuality and the family, school prayer and other church and state conflicts lie at the heart of the culture wars. The stakes are extremely high and the struggle is fierce and bloody—and likely to become even more intense.

I do not wish to quarrel with this description of our cultural politics, nor do I want to suggest that these issues are not crucial to the survival of our social fabric. But I confess that I am astonished by the lack of attention most religious believers have shown to what I call the “dark side” of the culture wars. The dominance of the culture wars over our public discourse is a striking example of how politicized we have become. It was once a universally accepted notion that politics grows out of culture—that the profound insights of art, religion, scholarship, and local custom ultimately shape the terms of political debate. Somewhere in our history we passed a divide where politics began to be more highly valued than culture.

It is not difficult to find evidence for this assertion. Take, for example, the rise of single-issue politics and the plethora of political pressure groups and the lengths to which politicians go to court such groups. Above all, there is the shrillness and one-dimensionality of most political rhetoric. The quality of public discourse has degenerated into shouting matches between bands of professional crusaders. As James Davison Hunter puts it, the culture wars consist of “competing utopian politics that will not rest until there is complete victory....” The result, Hunter concludes, is that “the only thing left to order public life is power. This is why we invest so much into politics.”

Even in the circles where I have felt most at home—including the conservative intellectual movement and the many Christian organizations dedicated to defending religious orthodoxy—I have come to see a dangerous narrowing of perspective, an increasingly brittle and extreme frame of mind. Coverage of the arts in conservative and Christian journals is almost non-existent. Again and again, I have seen the emphasis in these circles shift to having the correct opinions and winning political victories rather than on cultivating a reflective vision and seeking to win the “hearts and minds” of our neighbors.

The very metaphor of war ought to make us pause. The phrase “culture wars” is an oxymoron: culture is about nourishment, cultivation, whereas war inevitably involves destruction and the abandonment of the creative impulse. We are now at the point in the culture wars where we are sending women and children into battle, and neglecting to sow the crops in the spring. Clearly we cannot sustain such a total war. In the end, there will be nothing left to fight over.

Here is where the realm of literature and art comes into the discussion, in two important ways. First, the changing attitudes to art provide another case study in the narrowing effects of the culture wars. Second, it is my view that the imagination itself is the key to the cultural and spiritual renewal we so desperately need.

As in any other arena, progressives and conservatives have very different attitudes toward literature and art. Modern progressives have been far more interested in the art of their own time than conservatives have been; they have praised it as a subversive force, capable of undermining traditional values and making “alternative lifestyles” more acceptable. In taking this approach, the progressives have touched on one of art’s most important functions: to force people to look at the status quo in a new way and challenge them to change it for the better. From the satires of Euripides and Swift to the novels of Dickens and Flaubert and beyond, great art has engaged in the paradoxical activity of constructive subversion.

Unfortunately, the progressives have promoted subversive art that lacks a corresponding vision of the deeper wellsprings of human and divine order. Being members of an elite that is alienated from the traditional social order, they have become associated with art that is frequently nihilistic, or simply amoral. With less and less substance in their works, the artists supported by the progressives have resorted to irony, political propaganda, and sensationalism to elicit a response from their audience. Hence the passing celebrity of figures like Bret Easton Ellis, Karen Finley, Andres Serrano, and Robert Mapplethorpe.

On the other hand, conservatives have been deeply estranged from the art of this century. While they have celebrated artists who have shared their views, such as Yeats, Eliot, Waugh, and Percy, conservatives have frequently condemned “modern art” as if it were a monolithic entity. The idea has been that modern art is somehow tainted by a predilection for nihilism, disorder, perverted sexuality, even an indulgence in the occult. Conservatives frequently mock abstract art, experimental fiction, the theater of the absurd, and functionalist architecture. They prefer art that provides uplift and lofty sentiment. Unlike the progressives, conservatives tend toward the populist attitude encapsulated in the phrase: “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like....”

A corollary of this conservative alienation from modernity is the tacit assumption that Western culture is already dead. The stark truth is that despair haunts many on the Right. When conservatives turn to art and literature, they generally look to the classics, which are safely tucked away in museums or behind marbleized covers. Ironically, many conservatives don’t seem to have noticed that they no longer have anything to conserve—they have lost the thread of cultural continuity. They have forgotten that the Judeo-Christian concept of stewardship applies not only to the environment and to institutions but also to culture. To abdicate this responsibility is somewhat like a farmer refusing to till a field because it has stones and heavy clay in it. The wise farmer knows that with the proper cultivation, that soil will become fertile.

The tradition of Christian humanism always held that the secular forms and innovations of a particular time could be assimilated into the larger vision of faith. That is why T.S. Eliot could adapt Modernist poetics to his Christian convictions, or Flannery O’Connor could take the nihilistic style of Nathanael West and bring it into the service of a redemptive worldview. Only a living faith that is in touch with the world around it can exercise this vital mission of cultural transformation.

Because progressives and conservatives are so thoroughly politicized, their approach to art is essentially instrumental—as a means to an end, the subject of an op-ed column or a fundraising campaign. Of course, there is a deep strain of pragmatism in the American experience, and it does not take much to call it to the surface. In the context of American Christianity, the Puritan strain has shown a similar tendency toward pragmatism: art becomes useful insofar as it conveys the Christian message.

In a politicized age, few people look to art for its ability to create contemplative space in the midst of our restless lives. One would think that for Christians, the idea that contemplation and prayer ought to precede action should be second nature. But how many of us have become unwitting disciples of Karl Marx, who said that “up till now it has been enough to understand the world; it is for us to change it”? Marx’s preference for revolutionary action over the classical-Christian belief in the primacy of contemplative understanding of transcendent order lies at the heart of modern ideology.

Art, like religious faith in general and prayer in particular, has the power to help us transcend the fragmented society we inhabit. We live in a Babel of antagonistic tribes—tribes that speak only the languages of race, class, rights, and ideology. That is why the intuitive language of the imagination is so vital. Reaching deep into our collective thoughts and memories, great art sneaks past our shallow prejudices and brittle opinions to remind us of the complexity and mystery of human existence. The imagination calls us to leave our personalities behind and to temporarily inhabit another’s experience, thus allowing us to look at the world with new eyes. Art invites us to meet the Other—whether that be our neighbor or the infinite otherness of God—and to achieve a new wholeness of spirit.

The passion to find reconciliation and redemption is one of the inherently theological aspects of art. Before the modern era, this passion often took the form of theodicy—the attempt to justify God’s ways to man. There are, to be sure, few full-blown theodicies to be found in bookstores and art galleries today, but the same redemptive impulse has been diffracted into dozens of smaller and more intimate stories. We may not have towering figures of intellectual orthodoxy like Eliot, O’Connor, or Walker Percy living among us, but there are dozens of writers, painters, sculptors, dancers, filmmakers, and architects who struggle with our Judeo-Christian tradition and help to make it new. The renaissance of fiction and poetry with religious themes and experiences is in full swing, including such writers as Richard Wilbur, John Updike, Annie Dillard, Kathleen Norris, Anne Lamott, Ron Hansen, Louise Erdrich, Elie Wiesel, Larry Woiwode, Doris Betts, Reynolds Price, Chaim Potok, Frederick Buechner, Mark Helprin, Anne Tyler, John Irving, Tobias Wolff, Kate Daniels, Scott Cairns, Edward Hirsch, Paul Mariani, Geoffrey Hill, and Donald Hall. There are also signs that some of the most promising younger writers are finding religion at the center of their concerns; among these twenty- and thirty-something generation of writers I would single out Connie Porter, Hwee Hwee Tan, and Darcey Steinke.

But it is not only in literature that contemporary artists are returning to the perennial matters of faith. Take classical music, for instance. The three best-selling composers in classical music today are Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, and Henryk Gorecki. All of these composers were profoundly affected by the modern musical style known as minimalism. Yet they felt minimalism lacked a spiritual dimension—a sense of longing for the divine. So they returned to the ancient traditions of Gregorian chant and developed music that combines ancient and modern techniques, and which has brought back to contemporary ears the spirit of humility and penitence.

It is true that some of the artists that I’ve mentioned may not be strictly orthodox on all aspects of doctrine and many of them remain outside of the institutional church. But most of these figures are faithful Christians or observant Jews. All of the artists I’ve listed treat religion as one of the defining components of our lives. I think it is fair to say that if this body of art was absorbed and pondered by the majority of Christians, the quality of Christian witness and compassion in our society would be immeasurably strengthened.

Above all, these artists and writers are neither baptizing contemporary culture nor withdrawing from it. In the tradition of religious humanism, they are reaching out to contemporary culture and using their discernment to find ways to see it in the light of the Bible. Just as Christ established contact with the humanity of the publicans, prostitutes, and sinners he encountered before he revealed the message of salvation to them, so Jewish and Christian artists must depict the human condition in all its fullness before they can find ways to express the grace of God. In other words, Christian artists must be confident enough in their faith to be able to explore what it means to be human. At the heart of Christian humanism is the effort to achieve a new synthesis between the condition of the world around us and the ways in which grace can speak to that condition. That is how art created by Christians will touch the lives of people today.

Behind this vision of Christian humanism stands the doctrine of the Incarnation: the complete union of Christ’s divine and human natures. The Incarnation is the touchstone against which we can test the rightness of our efforts. That is because we must remember to keep the divine and human perspectives in a healthy balance. Emphasize the human over the divine and you fall into the progressive error; stress the divine over the human and you commit the traditionalist sin. To take just one specific manifestation of this equipoise, consider the need to balance God’s justice with His mercy. If all the emphasis is on justice, you end up with a harsh, abstract, and legalistic view of the world. But if mercy is all you care about, compassion will become vague and unable to cope with the complex realities of a fallen world.

All great religious art is incarnational because art itself is the act of uniting form and content, drama and idea, the medium and the message. If art is dominated by a moralistic desire to preach at the audience, it will become lifeless and didactic. Of course, we can spot didacticism more easily when its message is different from what we believe, but we all need to be careful not to confuse art with politics or theology. Art does not work through propositions, but through the indirect, “between the lines” means used by the imagination. We need look no further than the Gospels to be reminded of this fact. Christ’s parables are marvels of compressed literary art: they employ irony, humor, satire, and paradox to startle us into a new understanding of our relationship to God. If we are too quick to boil these unsettling stories down to one-dimensional morals, they will no longer detonate in our hearts with the power that Jesus intended them to have.

Many believers fear the imagination because it cannot be pinned down. But the imagination is no more untrustworthy than, say, reason. Like any other human faculty, it can be used for good or ill. Imagination, because it draws on intuition, conditions us to spot the instances when reason has become too abstract, too divorced from reality. In a work of art, the artist’s imagination calls out to the audience, inviting the reader or viewer or listener to collaborate in the act of discovering meaning. Jesus’ parables only find their fulfillment when we puzzle out their meaning, interpreting their ironies and paradoxes.

It is precisely this fear of the imagination that has led many Christians in America to create a subculture with Christian publishers, Christian record labels, and Christian art galleries. The underlying message conveyed by these products is that they are safe; they have the Christian seal of approval. But this is a devil’s bargain: in exchange for safety, these products have given up their imaginative power. And this is just where the strangest irony of all emerges. This subculture has rushed to produce Christian versions of almost every secular trend: from Christian heavy metal bands to Christian romance novels to Christian self-help books. But because these products lack the transforming power of the imagination, they are little better than the pop culture trends they imitate.

What is an example of a contemporary work of Christian imagination that truly synthesizes the realities of the culture in which we live with the timeless reality of God’s grace? Almost anything by the writers and composers I’ve listed above would make for a brilliant case study. I could also draw on the work of visual artists, choreographers, singer-songwriters, and artists working in many other genres I haven’t yet mentioned. But I will stick to what I know best—literature.

Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy (1991) is a haunting, enigmatic novel that is almost impossible to categorize. What makes Mariette fascinating is that it deals with a subject that must appear bizarre and esoteric to today’s reading public. Set in a Benedictine convent in upstate New York around 1906, it is the story of a girl who experiences the stigmata, the five wounds of Christ, in her own flesh.

Given the remoteness and “abnormality” of this world, the expectations and preconceptions of the reader undoubtedly play an important role in how the story is perceived. There is, of course, a long and undistinguished tradition of lurid, melodramatic tales of masochism and smoldering sexuality in the monastic enclosure. The genre, which probably began with Boccaccio’s Decameron, moves on to nineteenth-century anti-Catholic novels such as The White Cowl to contemporary psychological fables such as the film Agnes of God.

But if Hansen works with some of the same materials, he has fashioned an altogether more serious and profound exploration of suffering and religious passion. The novel’s protagonist, Mariette Baptiste, is the daughter of a possessive, hyper-masculine father; her mother died when she was young. Mariette is an intelligent and strikingly beautiful seventeen-year-old when she enters the convent. She is the type of woman who would cause jealousy, envy, and adoration anywhere she went, including the convent.

Rather than using her intelligence and beauty in the more conventional modes of academic achievement and marriage, Mariette withdraws into an intense inner life. She becomes a spiritual prodigy. All of her sensual energy and vivid imagination is channeled into her courtship with her divine lover, Jesus.

Within her first year in the convent, Mariette experiences the trauma of seeing her sister, who is also a nun, killed by cancer at the age of thirty-seven. Mariette undergoes a spiritual crisis in which she loses any sense of Christ’s presence. Then, in the midst of this agitation, the stigmata appear on her body; she bleeds from hands, feet, and torso.

When questioned, Mariette claims that the stigmata were given to her by Christ Himself. It becomes clear that, far from being proud and ostentatious about these wounds, Mariette is embarrassed and troubled. The convent is thrown into a turmoil of conflicting opinions and emotional responses.

Here is a subject that is perfectly suited for Freudian analysis. If there was ever a paradigm of repressed sexuality, the apparently masochistic mysticism of the female religious would seem to be it. And yet Ron Hansen’s novel makes no attempt to explain Mariette’s experiences; there is no sense in which the author stands above and outside his protagonist’s life, ready to share a knowing look with his reader about this sadly deluded girl. The story is open-ended, allowing the reader to interpret Mariette’s experience in any number of ways. That is exactly what happens in the convent, where almost every possible reaction, from adoration to loathing and fear are evoked by Mariette’s stigmata.

The open-endedness of the narrative is not a cop out, but a sign of Hansen’s respect for mystery, that dimension of the Christian imagination championed by Flannery O’Connor. For the writer who acknowledges mystery, O’Connor held, “the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted. Such a writer will be interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do.... He will be interested in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and who act on a trust beyond themselves—whether they know very clearly what it is they act upon or not.”

O’Connor’s words describe not only Hansen’s vision but also his protagonist’s significance. Mariette’s psychology is more than adequate. The modern reader, consciously or unconsciously schooled by Freud, will note the eroticism of Mariette’s spirituality and be tempted to think that in 1906 repressed sexuality led to religious hallucinations. But Hansen’s narrative also takes into account the tradition, from the Song of Songs through Carmelite mysticism, of Eros as a metaphor for the soul’s relation to the heavenly bridegroom.

The final level of ambiguity in the novel concerns the perceptions of those who must interpret Mariette’s ecstasies. These perceptions are colored by the characters’ deepest hopes, fears, and needs. Mariette’s stigmata, like any intense and miraculous religious experience, act as a touchstone, revealing the inner lives of those around her. Though such revelations include jealousy, anger, and the extremes of cynicism and blind faith, Hansen’s compassion is broad enough to forgive nearly all of them.

Hansen seems to leave the reader free to embrace almost any explanation of Mariette’s stigmata. But he is doing more than that. In leaving the narrative open-ended, the author is asking us to make our own judgments, and thus to confront and question our deepest beliefs and emotions. Despite the strong evidence for the truth of her experience, why is it so hard to let go of our suspicion that Mariette may be nothing more than a brilliant fraud? Is there something in us that refuses to accept such signs of God’s grace?

At the end of the novel, Mother Saint Raphael says to Mariette: “God gives us just enough to seek Him, and never enough to fully find him. To do more would inhibit our freedom, and our freedom is very dear to God.” Taken out of context, this might sound like a relativist’s creed, but the prioress is talking, in simple and direct language, about the nature of faith itself.

Hansen draws on modern Freudian notions of human motivation only to suggest that there is a far more profound and satisfying answer to the mystery: Christian faith. Here is a work that truly synthesizes elements of the culture we inhabit with the perennial wisdom of the Christian imagination.

Ron Hansen is a true steward of Christian culture, as are the Christians who ponder his vision. His art is neither safe nor predictable; it requires, and rewards, a deep engagement of our imaginative faculties. Such an engagement requires us to invest our own time and passion. Which brings me back to my central theme: how committed are we as Christians to nourish our faith and renew our society by becoming stewards of culture? Unless we contribute to the renewal of culture by participating in the life of art in our own time, we will find that the barbarians have entered through the gates that we ourselves have torn down.

Reprinted with permission from Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion. All rights reserved. Gregory Wolfe is editor and publisher of Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion.


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