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Courting the dark for art

Interesting thoughts last time, group. I’m always encouraged at the amount of thought going on about this "being in and not of" business.

It’s been a long day and I’ve had some exciting bits and some unsettling bits, as usual, but I need to get out one thought before packing it in. Let go of everything you know about writing to fit the market and giving people what they want and what are you left with? Your undiluted, unadorned self sitting there like a wet fish on the page. Sure you’ve got contrivances and techniques, conceits and devices to impress the paparazzi, but in the end, what is it really? It’s you and your thoughts wrapped up in the most attractive package you can offer. Did you change certain things to make it more palatable, more interesting, more inspiring, whatever? Did you leave out some things that might be too painful, too scary if someone figured it out? Did you scare yourself into thinking you’d have to answer for what you wrote so you’d better hold back? It’s this last one that gives me pause and makes me wonder if it isn’t the guilty Christian conscience that keeps many of us from greater art.

Can you write for art’s sake with a clean conscience? Let me bring that down to street level: can you give it all for the sake of the work, and I mean, everything you think you couldn’t possibly give for fear or anxiety or whatever else that’s nagging underneath?

What I’m wondering is if there are sins of omission in the creative process that are just as damning, if not more, for their damage on the reflected grace you bear as a "Christian artist." Can we write to serve the work, or must we write to serve only God? You can say you do both and you might even prove it, but what if writing this story requires breaking with what you know of God, hiding your face in the belly of a whale for a while so to speak, and living in the dark in order to experience the light on the other side?

Does that make sense? Maybe it’s time to go home… Have a great night, everyone!

10 Responses to “Courting the dark for art”

  1. Hi, Mick, The other day, I was thinking about a wonderful non-fiction Christian author, the late Jamie Buckingham. I put all his books in my church library. (I was librarian for eight years.)
    I loved what he wrote about the Eskimo that visited NYC with a famous explorer, and returned home, described all he saw, and was branded a liar.
    Another Eskimo later took the same trip and considerately spared the people the fantastic details of the tall igloos that glowed with lights without fire. Instead, he described fishing on the Hudson River in a kayak. He was branded some kind of hero, I forget.
    Jamie added that sometimes we pray for a spark of God’s fire and the leadership says, “Amen, Lord, and we’ll water that spark.”
    The point was how sometimes we’re afraid to say what God is really doing, or write what’s really in our heart, for fear of others’ reactions.
    Reaction sometimes being spelled r-e-j-e-c-t-i-o-n–of ourselves as well as our work.
    I guess we have to find the right path, choosing among writing the book of our heart, that of our agent and editor’s hearts, and God’s heart.
    Praise God when they’re all the same thing! I haven’t gotten there yet!

  2. Elaina says:

    Thanks for this post. It’s been added to the already challenging questions I’ve been asked or have asked of myself recently. I need to be challenged!
    “. . . but what if writing this story requires breaking with what you know of God, hiding your face in the belly of a whale for a while so to speak, and living in the dark in order to experience the light on the other side?”

  3. Mary, I had a couple of different naked dreams last night–neither related to each other or bearing any significance I could understand. In one of them my sister was the naked person. I was aware of and uncomfortable with her nakedness, but she didn’t seem to be. We entered a park and ran into four siblings she (supposedly) used to babysit. She had a happy reunion with them, naked all the while. Why do I tell you this? Hmmm. I have no clue. But you brought it up. ;)
    Mick, you wrote: “what if writing this story requires breaking with what you know of God, hiding your face in the belly of a whale for a while so to speak, and living in the dark in order to experience the light on the other side?”
    I’ve heard other writers bemoan their lack of passion or emotional connection with “the dark side” due to lack of experience. Here’s what I honestly believe. We are all going to suffer. We live in a fallen world, no matter how hard we try to bury our heads in some sterile, sanctified sand. Sin, death, decay, evil, perversion, and other forms of corruption touch every life as God allows.
    I don’t tack that “as God allows” on there like a disclaimer. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say, “as God ordains.” God rescues us not to transport us out of a dark world, but to make us lights in it. If we lived untouched by evil, our light would soon grow feeble and ineffective. By God’s design, we are perfected through suffering and trials.
    My point? We don’t have to go looking for a whale to stick our head in the belly of. (Yeah, stinky syntax, I know.) Whale bellies are deliberately and lovingly planted all along the path by our Father who intends to use them to sharpen our souls and pens. “What we know of God” is deepened, not broken with, as we grapple with the mystery of a God who meets us in the darkest place.
    (And the crowd breaks into thunderous applause . . . ) Heh. Sorry. Got a little long winded there. :)
    Have a jolly frolic with the whales today, friend.

  4. Jeanne, you have spoken a great truth. There are plenty of whales along the path, though some seem less dramatic than others. I say seem, because the truth is we’ve all got fallen natures. While one person struggles with addiction, another struggles with envy, or gossip, or any other of the less obvious sins. But sins they are, all the same, and darkness dwells there. It’s not just in the bars and back alleys — it’s in the church pews and fellowship halls.
    And this is good, thought-provoking, comfort-zone defying stuff Mick. I fear that much of my work so far has too many sins of ommission.

  5. Shanna says:

    —“Can you write for art’s sake with a clean conscience?”
    Well, when you say it THAT way, it just sounds dirty…
    Actually, I have no problem with this. I’m not talking in the sense it is often defined by Oscar Wilde, et al. The Aesthetic Movement was an attempt to create a standard of artistic quality apart from any sense of God’s work and historical purpose. (The Victorians were chipping away at common christian culture loooong before those poor hippies.) They emphasized beauty, while later movements emphasized particular techniques. Today’s CBA world seems to emphasize Message. All are missing the point, I suppose–the point that any good writer/artist aims for: a creation of beauty, technique and message that translates into great art.
    I do not value art for God’s sake. I cannot give or take anything away from the glory of God for valuing art more. That’s the beauty of worshipping the great I AM. However, as a steward and caretaker of the creation that God has given us, I do see fit to value art for art’s sake. As one who is drawn to the arts, I have been given a calling to steward whatever is placed in my hand. How I do that increases or diminishes my understanding of God. If I do it poorly, or with only Message on my mind, I will miss the insights beauty and structure give to my intimacy with my Lord. (Study linguistics, for an esoteric example, and be awed at how the VERB is the axis of all language–the I AM central to all creation.) I do not fear writing art for art’s sake, if I choose, but inevitably I find that I never do. When I write well, Christ is always on my mind, being in whom, through whom, and by whom all things were created. Even semi-colons!
    Similarly, I am not necessarily afraid of the whale’s belly. The fact is, I’ve probably knew that locale far too long. It would have meant death to my soul if I wasn’t convinced of a loving God and a greater purpose–if I had no context for the pain. Interestingly, I’ve been reading parallel thoughts on this in L’Engel’s Circle of Quiet. There she argues, as Francis Schaeffer often did, that no one could look at evil like the great Christian mystery writers (Sayers, Chesterson, Tey) could w/out seeing that evil in proper context–which, she says, makes the evil far more chilling than the random horror of today’s mystery writers.
    Am I getting this right? (Don’t have the book beside me. Feel like I’m rambling…someone surely has said this better than I.)
    All that said, I don’t enjoy going to the dark side, and I certainly don’t wish to raise it up. I sometimes don’t enjoy the parts of creation that art uncovers–or the particular configurations that we (humans, not Christians) try to frankenstein together in the name of art. But, as the continuing power of Lewis’s Screwtape Letters prove, sometimes to see the spark of true hope, we need to cross over and view the world from the empty blackness of the Pit.
    The movie, FARGO comes to mind…
    Ok-final thought. Screwtape was so powerfully instructive to me, not because I knew it was trying to teach me something, but because I saw myself in nearly every one of that young man’s dilemmas. This affected me, especially in my early days as a believer, much deeper than any apologetics or fantasy of Lewis’. Later, the other stuff got in. But as I rode the dual waves of commitment and unease, Screwtape’s voice chased me onto a firmer path. Lewis went to the dark side, and he brought me into the Light. He wouldn’t, however, write a sequel, stating that the first was too painful by half. Thank God that he did though. Thank God.
    Enough of me…

  6. Michael Rew says:

    No, you cannot serve the work and serve God. You must serve God. Now you could serve the work, and God could work all things together for God. But you would still be serving the work at that time, not God. Jonah ended up in the belly of the whale because he disobeyed God.

  7. Michael Ehret says:

    If I look at my life holistically, that all I have, am, and do, is God’s — and I do try to do this — then serving the work (which God gave me) will serve God.
    God’s not afraid of our dark stories. Every person in the world lives dark stories. If they read ours, perhaps it will point them toward the ray of light that is visible at all times in our stories. Even when things seem darkest, we know, even if we don’t experience, that God is there.
    Sometimes our characters have to experience His absence, just as we do, to confirm His presence.
    I think we limit our involvement in the work God is doing when we write less than what the work demands — regardless of where it takes us.
    Can’t wait to explore this site more. Just found it today.

  8. Shanna says:

    “…can you give it all for the sake of the work, and I mean, everything you think you couldn’t possibly give for fear or anxiety or whatever else that’s nagging underneath?”
    Oh, boy…here I go again. I just love mining these questions, and suddenly I have a little time to finally respond more fully to them.
    I read this question for the second time, and it finally made me pause because it’s exactly the sort of dilemma I face daily. It’s also a question I’ve posed to a few high schoolers over the past few years–How honest are you being with yourself? If you’re not honest with yourself, how can you approach God with even a shread of openess? It’s one thing to admit the problem, but it’s quite another to admit/submit to the possible solutions.
    As artists whose job is to communicate, we are expected to be very aware, very honest–about ourselves and God–in order to break down barriers of miscommunication, sin’s early varient. Not just of what we lack, but of what the correction might be. And Jonah’s problem was just that, a barrier of false ideas: he created a false god–one who couldn’t and wouldn’t offer salvation to Ninevah. THIS preceded and motivated his disobedience; THIS was Jonah’s primary sin. Jonah wouldn’t admit the honest truth of God, even if he was open about his disapproval of the Ninevites. We often fail in the same way because truth invites us to face the implications about sinful attitudes and prejudices that we cherish. As the VeggieTales song goes, “Jonah was a prophet, but he never really got it.” Honesty in communication is always a two-part proposition: giving up love of our own sins and giving up love of our own solutions.
    As sinners, people who continually miss the mark, we hedge and hide too often, though. And as writers who aspire to perhaps SELL our words, we aim at the bull’s eye of commercial viability, aware that we must mask our true hearts, perhaps our true message, for the marketplace. This mask might be part of our love of our own solutions. Fear.
    But if we allow that as writers we might also be commonplace prophets and teachers, then we also must allow that we will say many things that believers and unbelievers will deny. These ideas often don’t sell–even if they’re well written. That’s history, folks. Much precedent for that.
    However, keeping that idea of prophets and teachers in mind, we must also look to history to remember that not all prophets were sent to Ninevah, not all teachers were sent to the Jews. God calls us to different people groups, interest groups, demographics–and we are called to communicate to them, “being all things to all men” that some might know Christ. And when we look at who’s writing what, and what ‘naughty’ words we might or might not use, we get too distracted in these particulars and forget the greatest call. I think that instead we need to remember that we are unified in the essential melody, but that perhaps I’ll sing a smokey alto, while you’ll sing a bouyant baritone. And while it superficially sounds a bit dissonant, we know we’re all singing from the same structure, the same 8-tone system. It’s the same reality, the same foundation.
    And perhaps that the frustration I’m feeling about the CBA right now–one that I’ll have to simply place in God’s hands trusting that he’ll know where to take me just as he’s directed the steps of all the prophets and teachers before me. Perhaps it’s nothing but sin in me–a self-centered worry–but I just have the feeling that they’ve forgotten that history, that truth. But I’m just now exploring this world, so I have much to learn. I’m teachable.

  9. Margo says:

    Hi, again, Mick, to answer your specific questions, No. I didn’t change things or hold back my deepest, scariest beliefs.
    My heroine literally courts the dark despite warnings from others who know better, and as a result, she has several brief encounters with an angel and one with a demon. Not as many as Peretti’s first books, but real. And a little scary. The angel was sweet though. (No surprise there, lol.)
    I’ve talked to returned missionaries who have such stories to tell, I wanted to make the American church more aware of real spiritual warfare.
    *One* editor whose house was of a totally different bent told me my story was “uncommonly rich with many good twists and turns.”
    I should frame that quote and hang it on the wall for days like Monday when yet another rejection came in.
    I’m on my way! My honest story has been rejected by some of the best! LOL

  10. siouxsiepoet says:

    it came through crystal clear here. and i’m glad to say, i’m pulling out of my dark rut. but i do think there isn’t enough of the darkness brought to light. and that troubles me. it’s good to read you mick.
    blessings, suz.

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