‘”Right and wrong did not much interest him, but good and evil did. … Orwell remarked that [Graham] Greene seemed to share the idea, ”which has been floating around since Baudelaire, that there is something rather distingué in being damned.”’
What could possibly be distinguished about being damned?
This little speculation by Orwell forms the title for the cover story in this week’s New York Times Sunday Book Review on “Damned Old Graham Greene.” Seems Greene was a bit of a lech, which leaves those of us who would follow his writing example with a troubling age-old question. Does the creative’s personal life necessarily elevate or devalue the creation? Can someone be a wonderful artist and unregenerate?
Of course the answer is Yes, but you can’t even ask this question in most Evangelical churches, let alone suggest you consider art or writing to be empirically amoral in nature. I’ve heard some say they won’t read Lewis because he drank and smoked a pipe! But there are also those on the other side who think Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails is a genuine artist illuminating some of the most pertinent modern themes being discussed today. I am one of them.
But Graham Greene was like so many poignant artists who regularly committed deadly sins. What are we to do with them? This is a much bigger discussion than we have room for here, but I guess if we’re all sinners saved by grace, we should extend the net a bit wider to include dudes like Greene. God’s the judge, not us.
But equally important is the question: Can an artist be Christian and be a wonderful artist? T.S. Eliot became a Christian and lost much of the former power his words had. But then there’s Flannery O’Connor who apparently had no problem with it. Annie Dillard’s found a way to make it work. We tread a thin line as Christian writers, attempting to be relevant to the world’s evil, while holding up the truth of redemption. Yancey answers the question, “How do I keep from doubting and sinning when writing about doubt and sin?” with “How should I know?” (Writing as a Psychotic Act) There are also shades of this discussion over at the Image Journal forum where a reader has asked, “Should art do anything?” Should we be juding artist’s and their art’s value by the souls it saves?
Bringing it all together: as Christians our words must point to the deeper reality. Our art is our evangelism. But we also know that isn’t practically true or possible. True art must be clear of any hidden motive or message. Art is truth and truth IS amoral. Truth simply is.
The Christian writing revolution is calling for someone to solve this central impossibility. To have lasting impact, we must write what is true by being honest about the darkness and the light, while living in such a way that we understand the “struggles which are common to man.” The cardinal sin would be to let the clarity of our art be compromised by too much religion and inbred, Evangelical thinking.
And that’s yet another reason for strong community in this writing thing…