Against the deliberate “integration” of faith and art

Thanks to a Tweet from Image, I read an interview this morning with Wayne Roosa, an artist and art historian, in First Things. And I came across some words that were stronger than espresso. They woke me up and drove me to concentrate.

Why have I grown so tired of the conversation about “the intersection” or “integration of faith and art”?

I’ve been up to my knees in this conversation for many years. And with the best intentions. Isn’t it a good thing to talk about how faith influences art, and vice versa? Sure, to a point. Faith gives us a vocabulary to talk about the mysterious power of art and that fascinating endeavor called “incarnation.” And for me, the conversation was a way of finding my own escape from a world of fundamentalism in which art had been appreciated only for utilitarian purposes, for its ability to seduce people into emotional “Come to Jesus” decisions. The “art and faith” conversation was a journey toward the apprehension of beauty, and thus a journey toward a fuller apprehension of the Word Made Flesh.

And yet, I’ve been growing increasingly weary of talking about such things. The more we talk about how to exercise our faith in our work, the more I get the sense that the conversation can become distracting, even disruptive, for artists (of Christian faith or otherwise). Something just feels… unnecessary, and complicated, about endeavoring to “add faith” to our work.

Reading a recent blog entry about how to develop a “Christian imagination,” and another about “the Christian consumer,” I started choking. I don’t want to be a “Christian consumer.” I don’t want “Christian culture.”

Don’t our behaviors follow from our convictions? If we strengthen our faith, then our faith is carried out in what we do. It’s not as if we can stock up on faith, put it in a measuring cup, and sprinkle it into our stew.

The nature of the fruit that tree branches bear is determined by the seed from which that tree developed, the sunlight and rain which it receives, and the soil in which its roots are planted. An apple tree planted in good soil doesn’t say to itself, “Now… how can I make sure I bear a fruit that’s really, you know, apple-y?”

The more we add the adjective “Christian” to things – “Christian writing,” “Christian business,” “Christian consumption,” the more we are needlessly complicating matters. If we have faith in Christ, everything changes. If our roots are in the soil of the Gospel, we don’t have to stop and think about how to make something “Christian.” If you are a Christian, and your art does not reflect that, the problem is not primarily with your art but with your faith — because true faith transforms what we are and do.

If people who speak English write a letter, they shouldn’t have to stop and ask, “How do I integrate English with this letter?”

And besides, isn’t creativity an act of faith, from the very beginning, for anybody who does it? Wouldn’t creativity and art, stripped of faith, dis-integrate? Don’t it require faith to believe that creative work is worth doing, that it will communicate something a simple message cannot? If we believe that art can convey anything meaningful, we are demonstrating a belief in the power of the Incarnation, whether we like it or not.

These thoughts have been gnawing at me. And so, when I read the following excerpt, I came across an analogy that blazed like a beacon in a murky conversational maze.

Here’s the excerpt:

Q: So how do you see your faith and your art interacting, ideally?

A: That question is important but it can lead into ways of thinking that become cul-de-sacs. First of all, every artist who is also a thoughtful person has beliefs — a faith — about what we are and what it means to be here and to act and express. This is as true of a strict materialist as it is of a theist.

Yet the wrong kind of focus on “interaction” or “integration” can turn the “problem of integration” itself into the subject. This can lead to narrow polemics that are an artistic dead-end, whether the goal is sacred or secular.

When T.S. Eliot gave his lectures on the varieties of metaphysical poetry, he said the failures were hybrids of two kinds: poetic philosophy and philosophical poetry. He actually used the word “occult” to characterize their inadequacies. The successful poems happened when these two things “were fused at such a high temperature that they became a new entity in their own right.”

I also like a childhood analogy for the problem. When I was a little kid learning to ride a bike, I kept looking straight down at the front wheel to see if I was falling over. As a result, the front wheel wobbled and I fell over. My father told me to stop looking down and instead just to look ahead, forget about myself and enjoy the ride.

Yes.

What he said.

That is the freedom for which I yearn. I want to enjoy the ride, and to quit stalling by focusing on the wheels and the pedals. Such things may have been necessary when starting out. But now, the discussion of faith and art has begun to feel like a set of training wheels, making me self-conscious about the work.

I’d like to make progress.

To be honest, I’d like artmaking to become as natural as breathing, so I don’t have to think about my lungs as I do it. I’d like to ride the bicycle of imagination so freely that I can occasionally take my hands of the handlebars, my sense of balance and attention so clear that I continue sailing straight ahead, forgetting the bicycle for a few moments… forgetting myself… caught up in revelation.

[Previously: C.S. Lewis Explains - an argument against "Christian books."]

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