Idolatry, Religion and the Creative Process

octavia for blog

A couple of weeks ago, I was walking through the park with a friend of mine, talking about religion and the spiritual life. He paraphrased a quote, whose source I’m unfortunately unfamiliar with: “Some people use religion to approach mystery. Others use it to keep mystery at bay.”

It struck me as a profound sentiment, one that resonated with my experience. When I first converted to Christianity I was drawn by the sense that Creation and its contents were infinitely greater than I could hope or imagine and that a lot of the data that I had always been inclined to dismiss as fanciful – serendipity, symbolism, the sense of places being haunted or hallowed – was really evidence of a dimension of life beyond that I thought of as “real.” This thirst for some mysterious other was so powerful that eventually my attempts to explain it away as a strange epiphenomenon of social evolutionary processes crumbled and I began, in a tentative way, to search for God.

When I found Him, it was as if a dimensional portal had been opened on another universe, one that was the same as the world that I inhabited and yet not the same: deeper, richer, full of hidden spaces that I’d never seen before. It was kind of like one of those dreams where you’re walking through your house and you discover that there are halls, rooms, entire wings that you’d never noticed before. My interior landscape was expanding at a phenomenal rate, and everything was a source of wonder.

I don’t know at what point in this process my worldview began to calcify again, but it did. Slowly, as I learned the conventions of Catholic theology, the rules of liturgy, the law of the Church, a new set of certainties replaced the old ones and I once more became suspicious of the unknown. Now, instead of an atheistic conviction that “mystery” was really just a code-word for superstition, I had a fear that any phenomenon not adequately explained by the Catechism was probably demonic.

Religion had become a means of keeping mystery – God – away.

I’m hardly the first to have this experience, but I’ve noticed that generally people respond by throwing their religious beliefs aside and pursuing some kind of vaguer, more fluid spirituality. I suppose that I’m a kind of magpie, an intellectual hoarder perhaps, but I’ve never been able to simply let go of belief structures wholesale. I am still a skeptic, though no longer an atheist; still a feminist, though I adhere to a patriarchal religious creed; still queer, even though I’m married with seven children; still a postmodernist, even though I don’t despair of objective truth. In the same way, I’ve remained a Catholic even while recognizing the capacity of religion to become an idol, a replacement for God.

Truth, simply put, is greater than all of our constructs and every system of truth has its reversals and lacunae. That, as Leonard Cohen might say to Derrida, is how the light gets in.

It’s something that I’ve been thinking about specifically right now as I work through the final edits on Octavia, a novel that I’ve been writing for the past six years. There was a while, shortly after my conversion, where I keenly felt a tension between my religious beliefs and my creative life. I felt as if somehow I had to artificially force the Muse to submit to Christ – as if a God who is Goodness, Truth and Beauty would not be served simply by creating beautiful things. I had to somehow write Christian fiction that would be edifying and wholesome, a cipher for the gospel.

Which, as a matter fact, I’ve never been able to do.

Basically, I had a set of religious criteria for good “Catholic” fiction that choked out the mystery of the creative process – a process that is in truth as wild and unruly as a forest in bloom. During that period I produced functionally no fiction aside from a few abortive pages of embarrassingly bad text. I couldn’t get into any of the stories because they had no animating darkness, no inner life.

This error, I think, of trying to write good Christian stories with Catholic protagonists and wholesome moral values, is the reason why Christian art is so frequently bad. Because Creation isn’t like that. God’s world is full of horrific evils, enigmas, paradoxes, deeply flawed heroes and sorrows that nobody can explain. It is replete with terrible mystery. Take this away, sanitize the artistic process and dress it up in pious trappings, and you end up with something that cannot be beautiful because it is essentially untrue.

Beauty is truth, truth beauty. Even when beauty moves through the darkness like Leviathan, and I cannot hope to tie her down with a fishhook or pierce her jaw.

Image credit: My cover art for Octavia. Work in progress. Suggestions welcome.
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