St. Francis de Sales and the Artist-Theologian

St. Francis de Sales and the Artist-Theologian January 23, 2017

St. Francis de Sales.

Before I was confirmed in the Catholic Church three years ago, I had to choose the name of a saint as my “new” name. It’s not just for popes, after all.  The reason for picking a “patron saint” is that this person is to be our guardian throughout the rest of our lives by interceding for us in heaven. And usually, it is someone whose story we identify with in some way.

Peter seemed like an obvious choice, because I’ve always loved and identified with the apostle who has a bit of a passionate side. He was the guy in the Bible who passionately declared that he would never betray Christ and then did so not once, but three times a few hours later. He could be a changeable ass but Christ picked him to be the rock of the church, the first pope. In other words, a perfect saint for me.

But I also loved Francis de Sales, who is the patron saint of writers and apostle to the Calvnists, my former tribe of Christians. In the end, I couldn’t choose and took the name Peter Francis. An unusual move, I later found out.But it made me wonder, do we choose the saints or do the saints choose us?

Tuesday is the feast of St. Francis de Sales, and I’m taking stock of my writing career. I’m asking, “What kind of writer have I been, and what sort of writer do I want to become?” To answer those questions, I look to my patron, St. Francis de Sales, and some of the writers I admire the most. They all have something in common: they strove to be artist theologians.

The combination of these terms might seem odd because it blends two things that do not mix very well in our contemporary Catholic world. First, Catholics only recognize someone as a “theologian” if they’ve been given official sanction of the church. Yet, the Church also has a long history of “lay” theologians, people who write or talk about theology either in the academic or popular sense. But even those are looked at with some degree of skepticism. The idea of an artist attempting any sort of theology is often met with scorn at best and cries of heresy at worst.

The reason, of course, is that art is not very neat and tidy. And this, theologians claim, can lead to theological error and therefore lead people “astray.” But, very often theologians can fall into the opposite error: strict rigidity to the point where they lose touch with real life. Henry Karlson addresses this tendency in his article “Academic Theology” over at Crisis Magazine. He points out that before the scholastic era of the church, everyone did theology, including the vendors in the streets. But, very soon, theology got divorced from real life and real conversation, becoming a topic for scholars only.

Indeed, I’ve had more than one theologically inclined friend brag to me that they never read any fiction as they are “too busy” reading “real things.” They are mystified when I express my sympathy for their stunted theology because they’re in danger of disembodying their faith.

On the other side, artists respond to this snub by theologians in two different ways. Some look at theology as confining and boring. Many artists buy into the idea that the artist should be free of all constraints and enabled to pursue some sort of mythical artistic objectivity. But all the best art has been produced by wrestling and struggling with boundaries, restrictions and limitations. In neglecting theology, these sort of Christian artists often produce groundless and meandering art that challenges nothing and no one.

In Walker Percy’s famous analogy in Lost in the Cosmos, artists are supposed to be canaries in the mindshaft, alerting everyone when something poisonous has entered the atmosphere. But the canary can’t do its work if it has flown out of the cave in pursuit of its own sense of purpose and integrity. Maybe the caged bird does sing better.

Alternatively, many Catholic/Christian artists will say, “God gave me this book/article/poem.” They mistake pious sloganeering as a deep, theological commitment. I’m often astonished at the superficial theological reflection I find in many contemporary Christian artists, including people who should know better. What passes for so-called “Christian novels” would a prime example of this.

As I’ve thought about this divide, I’ve wondered how it might be fixed. It begins, I think, with opening up the term “theology” to a broader definition, at least, as it relates to artists. The term means “the study of God.” As theologians practice it, it should be narrow and precise in conjunction with church teaching. But if we open it up to artists, perhaps we can say it’s more of exploring how God is in all things, even in terrible things. For the Christian artist, we have to see that theology is really trying to figure out the “story of God” and how we can tell it to the world. Notre Dame theologian Leonard DeLorenzo does this very well in his book, Witness. Theologians can help us understand the details of the story even as they strive to tell it in new and provoking ways.

The reality is we all do theology, whether we know it or not. Theologians of the Middle Ages recognized this and sought to apply the story of God to every aspect of human life. And the great artists picked up on that pursuit and integrated it with their own pursuit of art. Even 50 years ago, the great Catholic writers of our time engaged and did theology either consciously or unconsciously. O’Connor, Percy, Merton, Tolkien, Waugh and others fought with the tension between the world of artists and the theology of the church.

The answer for me is not less theology in art, but more. But, with more theology comes more tension. This is a very good thing. Because when the two crash against each other, it creates a friction that gives birth to amazing works of art.  As someone with a Master of Divinity, I’ve often looked at my novel writing as a separate thing. But all my works contain a theological component, even my paranormal thrillers. This always created a severe tension in me that I tried to avoid or somehow come to terms with through a series of broken, uneasy truces.

Now, I realize the two parts of me do not need a truce. They need to be allowed to run free and wild to see what sort of discomfort they might create. And, I can gaze into that turmoil and write what I see.

This is what we’re trying to do at the Trying to Say God conference in June: Flout the idea that artists can’t do theology. We want to challenge artists who avoid theology. We want to ask theologians why they aren’t in conversation with artists. And in the end, we hope to create a different sort of atmosphere where the theologian-artists can thrive.

(You can register now on the Trying to Say God website.)




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