December 15th, 2016
We’re going to make a party out of art this weekend (more on that below). But art, as we’ve noted here and there, has a presence far wider than galleries or museums. Art’s purview extends into domains we don’t typically associate with creative expression. In this Backstory we consider three: in difference, in repentance, and in our common life.
First the art of disputation.
The election is over (isn’t it?), and there’s been time for some modest self-reflection among both individuals and institutions as to the extent to which they may have turned away from the better angels of their nature. The seduction of harrowing and haranguing those with who we disagree was strong this cycle, and the more we look at it with a bit of critical distance, the more vitriolic we appear to have become.
It’s progress to see our devolving rhetoric for what it was. But to think the bad taste in our mouth left by the last eighteen months will be enough to keep us from imbibing on our own bile in the future is naïve. So two timely (and prescient) words to share here for the sake of continuing our collective therapy on learning to speak the truth in love.
One is from Jamie Smith on the “Art of Persuasion” (It’s really an editorial summarizing a 2013 issue of the magazine he edits, and which we recommend, Cardus.) Our fear and our pride drive us into to homogenous zones we like to call “echo chambers.” They reinforce our perceptions and help us feel safe–on surer footing. The problem is we can let their corporate consolation both insulate us from views that may in fact sharpen ours, or worse, imbue us with an inclination toward disrespect of alternative viewpoints–what’s been coined of late “otherizing.” In neither of those unfortunate outcomes of living in the proverbial bubble do we ever learn that skill–to Smith “art”–that both teaches us to listen as well as we explain ourselves, and also provides the opportunity for real progress in working toward understanding, or at least healthy disagreement.
The other is one we recently mentioned in passing during Q&A. C.S. Lewis is famous for his trenchant analysis and winsomely accessible prose on the most complex topics. But he was also known for uniting the most fervent defense of his convictions with an uncompromising respect of those with whom he disagreed. In this article on Lewis’ “Art of Disagreement,” you find brief summary of his pugnacity, magnanimity, and corrigibility–three traits not often found in the same person but which Lewis proves to be not only possible but eminently preferable.
Next, is there an art to repentance?
One thread of our Q&A last Sunday involved what is a healthy form of reckoning with one’s own sin. We argued in the sermon that our union with Christ affords us a new freedom to find life through our resistance against sin. Sin remains a powerful seduction, but not as it had formerly. And when we fail to live into that freedom we have to ask what’s the salutary way out of the mire into which we stepped?
Repentance is no formula but more like an art. Its practice dwells between two errors.
One distorted form of repentance trades in a self-loathing that thinks the inward flagellation can somehow compensate for the sin. It lets a proper grief for sin devolve into a morose self-hatred. Following that trajectory leads not to a greater appreciation for the grace of God but more likely a subtle seething against the high calling of holiness. Nothing beautiful comes from it.
The other error, rather than holding grace with suspicion, embraces grace with presumption. As English theologian John Owen explained, one may truncate the act of repentance into something less than true refinement by wrapping oneself in the grace of God without reflection on what occasioned its need to begin with. One may, when they fall into sin, run too soon to John’s comforting words in 1 John 1:9
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
While the truth of that consolation is undeniable in light of what we have in Christ, refusing to consider, as Owen warns, the guilt of what we’ve done (how it offends) and the danger of persisting in what we’ve done, is to invite no true repentance. For in repentance there is a learning that’s constitutive of reforming our way. And only where there is reflection on what led us to this, and moreover why the goodness of God is better than the destructive way we’ve chosen, can we be confident this repentance is the genuine article.
So, yes, there’s an art to repentance.
Lastly, art in our common life.
We’ll convene at the Harris home this Saturday night (have you RSVP’d yet?) to celebrate the “arrival” through art. (Oh, and we’ll eat, too.)
Three notes on art that came our way this week which we happily pass on to you. The first involves art’s origins within Christian tradition. (HT: Prufrock)
Thomas Mathews, The Dawn of Christian Art in Panel Paintings and Icons (Getty, December 15): “Staking out new territory in the history of art, this book presents a compelling argument for a lost link between the panel-painting tradition of Greek antiquity and Christian paintings of Byzantium and the Renaissance. While art historians place the origin of icons in the seventh century, Thomas F. Mathews finds strong evidence as early as the second century in the texts of Irenaeus and the Acts of John that describe private Christian worship. In closely studying an obscure set of sixty neglected panel paintings from Egypt in Roman times, the author explains how these paintings of the Egyptian gods offer the missing link in the long history of religious painting. Christian panel paintings and icons are for the first time placed in a continuum with the pagan paintings that preceded them, sharing elements of iconography, technology, and religious usages as votive offerings. Exciting discoveries punctuate the narrative: the technology of the triptych, enormously popular in Europe, traced by the authors to the construction of Egyptian portable shrines, such as the Isis and Serapis of the J. Paul Getty Museum; the discovery that the egg tempera painting medium, usually credited to Renaissance artist Cimabue, has been identified in Egyptian panels a millennium earlier; and the reconstruction of a ring of icons on the chancel of Saint Sophia in Istanbul. This book will be a vital addition to the fields of Egyptian, Graeco-Roman, and late-antique art history and, more generally, to the history of painting.”
Second, rumor has it we’ll have a chorale chorus us (yes, it’s also a verb) with carols this Sunday. Deborah Bowen, again over at Cardus, heralds the artistry of carols, and welcomes additions to our Christmas canon. Like this one composed from a poem by the late Margaret Avison:
The light that seeks us out
is as at first
But darkness now is different, only ours
Child of our years, still help us till we know
the Lamb the only Light.
(From No Time, 1989)
Caroling condenses colossal themes in memorable melody–far from the realm of sentimentality to which we tend to relegate them. So this Sunday, and especially Christmas Eve, we will drench ourselves in the glories of carols.
One last artistic offering: a little verse on that thing we see so infrequently here that it makes us feel like kings and queens when it comes: snow
A Treasury of Snow
by Bill Coyle
The cargo of cold white
in the red pickup that waits
beside me at the light
explained (if not away, quite)
by the truck’s New Hampshire plates.
Beautiful, but how,
after a lifetime of snow
did I still not know
a snowflake casts a shadow?
Maybe I did know. I know now.
Behind the snow lies
an invisible heaven:
tell us so, suggest even
our kind might find paradise.
saw the statue in the stone.
I feel like I alone
can discern through all this snow
the car parked here not a day ago.
Lion at our back door,
who set you here, and what for?
Our upstairs neighbor,
I imagine? For good Feng Shui?
I like your white fez today.
Atop each flattened
picket-tip sits a fattened
white bird the weather
overnight put together
feather by crystal feather.
The treasury of snow,
one of them, in any case,
is out past Pluto,
whence comets come, whence they go,
on the margins of deep space.
We risk diminishing art by labeling all expressions artistic. But we risk missing enough to leave us with regret by failing to see the art lurking in much of life.