The stacks of books and loose notes for my last (the last) paper due are piling up around mine ears, but I had a lovely break of a chat the other day with my delightful mom. We talked books. Their beauty and power to shape our lives, to widen our imaginations. We laughed over the stories we loved from our respective corners of Oxford and Colorado and had the grandest time in the world (with cups of tea in hand, of course)
And the chat became a podcast, which my mom is featuring on her blog today.
So if you’re up for sharing a bit of Clarkson girl bookishness and general delightedness in the wonder of words, hop on over HERE. You’ll find the link ready and waiting.
Lila was the first real novel I read this summer. I started it in the weeks just after the last push for exams, when my mind was weary and ready to be swept up into another’s world. I was not disappointed. Rarely have I felt myself so immersed in the thought of a character, in many ways thinking along with her, forgetting my own omniscience as a reader.
Lila is the companion to the earlier Gilead. That first novel is a book of letters, written by an elderly pastor in small town Iowa to the young son whose adulthood he knows he will not live to see. Lila, mother of that son, glimmers in the background of the book, her presence a grace that still startles the old man to wonder. We know, from the old man’s words, that his marriage was startling, if not scandalous to the small town and flock in his keeping. We know that Lila was a drifter, a woman with an unknown past.
In Lila the novel, we are taken into Lila’s mind, seeing the story, the marriage, the coming child through her own eyes. In a masterful stream of narrative, in which Lila’s thoughts leap between memory and present, past event and current meaning we encounter, not just a story, but the shape of a mind that has been molded by loneliness, by suspicion, by a long, hard life on the road. Lila’s inner voice is inclined to distrust everyone and yet… she yearns to trust. What brings Lila into the story we read is her hunger for love, her fragile hope in the gentle love of a good old man whose faithfulness has challenged the narrative by which she lives.
Lila is in many ways the story of two inner voices, that of loneliness, and that of love, and the two as they wrestle for primacy within Lila’s heart. Someday I should probably write a longer and more literary review of this remarkable book, but for the moment, I just want to write about those two voices, because what gripped me was how familiar they were. As I read Lila’s thoughts, thought them with her really, I was startled by my first inclination to believe Lila’s inner narrative precisely because mine is often the same. I know the power of loneliness to tinge any offer of love with doubt, to steal away the innocence of joy, to darken expectation of good. I wonder if most of us do, if we will finally be honest with ourselves.
But what challenged Lila’s fractured way of seeing was love; in action, in presence, in faithfulness that could not be denied. And it challenged mine, made me again aware of the power of my thoughts to tinge the world around me, the love given to me in husband and family and friends, made me realize that, as a dear mentor has told me many a time “you have to speak to your thoughts, not listen to them!” So as I read, I began to note down characteristics of each voice, interrogating my own inner narrative as I went.
First, the voice of loneliness.
You best keep to yourself, except you never can. (all italic quotes from Lila)
Loneliness cannot forget the grief of the past. Every time a moment of peace comes to Lila or her heart begins to settle into the gift that is her new home, she gets suspicious. It’s too good to be true; and the voice of loneliness tells her she’s too smart to believe it. She steels herself for the moment that the Old Man will be angry at her, will send her away.
That’s one good thing about the way life is, that no one can know you if you don’t let them.
Loneliness always sets the painful past as a backdrop to the mind so that the heart is tense and defensive. Lila remembers the darkness before and any kindness or good or casual word gets filtered through a screen of sadness. The old man’s quiet, stated devotion reaches Lila as a hollow promise, something she expects to fade.
She had told herself more than once not to call it loneliness, since it wasn’t any different from one year to the next, it was just how her body felt, like hungry or tired, except it was always there, always the same.
Loneliness tells us we are not worth love. Loneliness shows Lila the long line of people who left her, forgot her, rejected her and presents that as defining evidence of her worth as a person. And she believes it. She believes it so strongly that she almost cannot accept the love that comes to challenge the tyrannical finality of loneliness.
Loneliness, oddly, seeks isolation. One is safe when one cannot be betrayed. And Lila’s impulse is always to leave. It is the secret possibility that makes her feel safe.
But what about love, the voice that challenges that of loneliness? In the novel, love finds Lila in the form of the old man whose care both for her soul and her heart are tenacious, long-suffering, and tender. The old man, even amidst his own frailty and need yet embodies that paean of love in 1 Corinthians, rooted as he is in a lifelong journey toward the healing love of God himself.
The voice of love?
Love draws us into the present. Love draws Lila from the mist of her grief and guilt, summoning her to stand in the presence, not of phantoms, but of a human being whose hands and heart are offered to her.
If the Lord is more gracious than any of us can begin to imagine, and I’m sure He is, then your Doll [Lila’s sort-of guardian] and a whole lot of people are safe, and warm, and very happy. And probably a little bit surprised.
Love sees us in the wholeness we cannot imagine for ourselves. The old man sees the beauty in Lila’s loyal, suspicious heart and by his love, he draws her, step by step into health. Day by day, as she dwells within the home that is his gift she begins to belong, begins even to believe she belongs. At first she feels it is play-acting, but love not only brings her home, it makes her at home, makes of her a loved and honored wife and helps her to believe it too.
She thought, if we stay here, soon enough it will be you sitting at the table and me, I don’t know, cooking something, and the snow flying, and the old man so glad we’re here he’ll be off in his study praying about it. And geraniums in the window. Red ones.
Love never fails. Even in the face of suspicion. The old man’s affection remains. He is sometimes grieved, often frustrated as he sees the fear light up in her eyes, the impulse to run straiten her muscles. But his love does not fail and it knows how to wait.
When you’re scalded, touch hurts, it makes no difference if it’s kindly meant.
Love hopes, ah, it hopes with a mighty will. It’s a precious thing to watch hope grow in Lila’s mind. It comes in flashes, little glimmers of expectation that, at first, she pushes away. But later, she begins to believe, begins to desire, begins to trust. Until she comes to the a place where she can look at the past behind her, not to bury it in denial but to hold it out to the touch of love, for:
There was no way to abandon guilt, no decent way to disown it. All the tangles and knots of bitterness and desperation and fear had to be pitied. No, better, grace had to fall over them.
I’ve been thinking a lot about loneliness lately because I think its endemic to the human condition and I think our sense of isolation is deepened by modern life. One of the things I studied in theology was what it means to be fallen, to sin, to live out the opposite of love. And the opposite isn’t hate, as you might instantly think.
Rather, if you define love as the perfect and continued gift of self as imaged for us in the Trinity, as incarnated in Christ, if you think of love as fellowship with God and with one’s fellow creatures (as I would after many hours of study), then the opposite of Love is a self turned in upon itself, a self isolated and disconnected from other selves, a self profoundly alone.
Isolation, disconnection, this is what it means to be fallen, and in a culture that tends toward radical individualism and an online world where we can hide our real, lonely selves behind countless profiles, I think it is easy for us to listen to the voices of loneliness and turn increasingly from the challenge of encountering the real, transformative love of God, or the challenging love of the other people in our lives. Isolation is safety. But it is also a slow, slow death.
After reading Lila I was challenged to confront my inner narratives. It’s the small things. It’s choosing to live in the acceptance of my husband, accepting his loving ease with my foibles when my heart fears rejection. It’s choosing to reach out to friends I haven’t seen for awhile, to choose connection rather that isolation when I feel forgotten or lonely. It’s choosing over and over to recognise and talk down that voice in my head that makes me suspicious of friendship or expectant of rejection or even just tells me to switch on the screens and lull the loneliness. It’s choosing, daily, to read my battered old Bible one more time and try to believe the grace I am offered, the hope I have, the love in which I stand.
I’m getting there. I hope you are too. May the voice of love break into whatever narrative you and as with Lila, ‘may grace fall over’ every bit of your heart.
The summer I was eleven, I discovered the Anne books for myself. I’m pretty sure my Mom had read me Anne of Green Gables aloud before, and I’m pretty sure I liked it. But when the sunny hours stretched long (and in Texas far too hot for outdoor play) one July day, I reached for the second book in the series. Suddenly, the Anne books became a world that blossomed in my imagination, a place and a people almost as real to me as those of my house and family. Anne called her pond a ‘lake of shining water’, she made ‘kindred spirits’, she wove the ordinary of house and farm and kitchen into a drama of discovery so that each person around her appeared like a figure in a fairy tale, each house a living story, each day a gift set in her hands by a grace beyond her ken. I dwelt in her vision and began to see my own world afresh.
My engagement with ordinary life was different after my sojourn with Anne in P.E.I. The rich mystery that Anne made of the everyday livened me to a new and heightened awareness of my own world as gift. The descriptions of landscape and person that I discovered in the Anne books instigated my own forays into writing as I attempted to see and begin to describe my own life in her charmed and sacred terms. The Anne books offered me that ‘enlargement of being’ that C.S. Lewis describes as one of the great gifts of story in his pithy little volume An Experiment in Criticism.
As he so fervently states, ‘in reading great literature, I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.’
These are exactly the qualities at back of the novels I’m gathering to recommend in my new book. I’m hard at glorious work on Book Girl, gathering quotes and making impossibly long lists of my favourite books. In honour of the (supposedly) lazy days of summer and as a fit start to this project I’ve used these first weeks to revisit the novels that allowed me that ‘enlargement of being’ so rejoiced in by Lewis. I’m reading back through a few Anne books, I’ve revisited the lonely, revealing inner narrative of Lila: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson, savouring its slow, slow growth in grace. I’ve traveled back through The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, and remembered the way that reading connects us to each other and this sweet and weary old earth. There’s no way I can make it through this summer and the writing of this book without a bit of Goudge’s sacramental enchantment in The Little White Horse. And since I am regularly teased about being a Wendell Berry apologist, I think I’d better revisit Remembering: A Novel (Port William)too, as its one of the books that helped me to understand my old-souled self and my place in this strange, modern world. (And my goodness, his Selected Poems have ministered to me of late.)
But now, I need to adventure a bit. Obviously, I have dozens of beloved novels on the lists already. But I want to adventure a bit before I set them in stone. Below, I have a list of novels, a few essays, and a bit of poetry, none of which I’ve yet read. These are the books I’ve heard about, been told I should read, or just had covers I couldn’t resist. I know there are countless thousands of titles I could read or recommend, but I’m looking for the books whose stories enlarge my vision, not randomly, but with greater insight into the workings of love, the ways of grief, the real wrestle with frailty, or the forward march of hope. Books, in other words, that teach me what it means to be human, and what it looks like to reach for the wholeness of love in its thousand different ways.
I would love to know the books that you would list as the sort that help you to live and live a bit more to the full. I’d love your thoughts on any of the books below. And I’d love to know what you’re reading yourself. If there’s one thing I want Book Girl to be, it’s a fellowship of readers, so consider yourself invited. And let the reading continue.
The afternoon light is the colour of rain as I write. It drifts in over my hands, fills my eyes, makes them quiet. I can feel the morning’s whir of thought and word easing to a halt. I’ve tried to cram an hour more of work in after lunch but my brain is slow, my eyes crave stillness, my heart yearns to put away the screen and take these dove-coloured moments simply to watch the changing sky over the church tower, to speak with a friend, or savour (not devour) the lyrical writing of the novel I began the day before.
So I do.
I really do. It’s a bit of a triumph for me. Mere weeks before, I would have forced myself forward, driven my brain to distracted attention, egged myself on to more work with intermittent glances at facebook or email or whatever I could find to briefly pep my weary mind. At the time, with exams ahead and papers to finish, the urgency seemed needed. It seemed right to push myself to the edge of my capacity. And I recognise that sometimes a person has to stretch to the limit, a glorious expenditure of self in a worthy and all encompassing cause. I’m glad I did.
The problem is how to get back to normal. To live, again, within the sustainable rhythms of work, rest, relationship, creativity. The problem is that I have trained my mind to frenzy and now that I am back in ‘normal’ time, my brain is still both weary and restless. Unused to calm, unready for work. The easy thing would be to meet that odd combination with the multifold distractions on offer via the screens that sit so easily to hand. The problem with that is the fact that such distraction could easily become the new norm. Sometimes I wonder if it is. With the pace of life the way it is these days, and the iPhone nearby and the schedule full, I often wonder if frenzy is the default setting for modern existence.
But frenzy does not a writer, nor a soul at peace, make. It’s good to be writing again, to be in a season where creativity is demanded of me in the crafting of this next book because it reminds me that I cannot just command inspiration. If I have given my mind nothing but clickbait and hastily screened articles with no real rest or hush, then all I can expect is the static noise of that craziness. To write, to say what I think is truest about myself and words and the stories that form us, I have to create the tilled space in which I can both listen to the Holy Spirit and in which creativity, idea, inspiration can grow, little seedlings of wisdom that will die in too strong a wind of hurry.
I’m learning to write afresh, and I’m learning to live afresh, and one of the first ways I’m learning to do that is to have set times when I do not write. Rather, I rest. Rather, I read, or bake, or sleep, or walk in the world whose summer fields are a feast of beauty. I meet the weariness of brain and body with assent; I recognise my limits. Ah, this is not my strength. I dislike limits. I dislike the weakness of my own body. But to rest, to yield to weariness is the pattern and grace I’m having to relearn in these early days of my writing summer. What’s interesting is what it teaches me about what it means to live in general. I cannot expect to live in that joy that is possible in the small gifts of the present if my attention is absent. I cannot ask for closeness to God and peace of heart if I have paid no attention and made no space for the presence of the Beloved.
I’m in a period of recollection. I like this word. I’ve been reading Evelyn Underhill again these days, nourished by her gentle guidance toward that centre room of quiet in the heart and the prayer that grows from it. To the saints and Christian mystics, the term recollection meant the constant and needed return from the world of action to that inner place of prayer. It means, quite literally, to remember, to take the time to recall the love of God in its present generosity, and so to dwell again in its grace. I like the term because it evidences the fact that life drives us from the inner place. Often, in my idealism, I have considered this my failure. Surely if I were really serious enough about loving God, I’d never feel anxious, never get caught up in distraction, never waste my time on useless things, never feel anxious or afraid.
Recollection though, teaches me that the ebb and flow, the battle, the work, the busyness, the fear, are part of the story I live in loving God. Here, in the broken place, the good work of the everyday is always a fight, and peace must always be claimed, again. And again, and again. I just have to keep returning. Part of that means pushing aside the lesser rest of distraction for the real grace of quiet. That’s the rhythm I’m learning afresh, the will and grace to return, to pull myself out of the frenzy and choose times of hush. To put aside good, tough work in order to look, wonder, love. It’s the discipline without which I’ll never write anything worth reading, and it’s the rhythm by which I keep myself rooted in the love of God, the daily, given grace for each moment.
And as the marvelous Anne Morrow Lindbergh said, who also knew the power of recollection, life always “rushes back into the void, richer, more vivid, fuller than before”.
May such a richness be yours today.
(Next post: summer reading list! Get your own favourites ready, I’ll want to know what’s on yours as well…)
Friends. I made it! Papers submitted, exams survived, my Oxford undergrad (I can’t believe I’m saying this) just about finished.
My goodness. For about a month there I think I just about ate, slept, breathed, and dreamed theology. Trinitarian intricacies, atonement models, high christologies, the meanings of ‘power’ in Romans, the significance of ‘signs’ in John. At the end of it, I donned my ‘subfusc’ (the academic dress required for exams), pinned in my carnation (white for the first exam, pink for middles, red for final), and tromped down with all the other windblown undergrads for three hour examinations in grand old exam rooms on Oxford’s High Street. It’s the kind of thing you can barely imagine before you do it; three hours to write three full essays from memory when you’re not even sure what the questions will be? But then adrenaline kicks in, and you do it. The triumph when you emerge into the sunlight sounds like trumpets and the swish of white-winged wild birds. You stumble out of the exam schools and feel you might as well just march down to the registrar and sign up for a Ph.D. (Hah!). After my last exam, I rode this high for about three days.
Then I crashed. But it was just in time for a bit of adventuring. Some open road for the renewal of soul and mind. Guess where I’ve been a-wandering? St. Andrews first of all, for some rollicking fun with my darling sister (yes, we did need both the french fries and the onion rings – it was an evening farm market and we were famished):
Look at the mellow, sea-tinted glory of this place. I walked and walked, trod those old stones and got a bit of their peace in the soles of my feet.
Then to London, with my girls, to see Joy’s first official play premiered at the London Encounter. It was a fascinating 20-minute monologue centred on the character of police inspector Javert, from Les Miserables, exploring his grapple with both law and grace. Let me just say, I have a radiantly creative and dramatically astute sister. (Pretty proud over here.)
Then, to Devon with my beloved. And oh friends, the dappled, green-hilled beauty, the narrow roads, the high hedges, the changing sky. The light, like diamonds and water and laughter coming through ancient trees growing out of even older stone walls, trees you feel will turn around and talk if you stay an extra moment.
And flowers. Fields and gardens and hedges resplendent with their glory.
And oh friends, fresh eggs and roses from the farm where we stayed. I think my English hostess was probably a little overwhelmed by my repeated gratitude. But those roses. I’ve never smelled any as sweet. And the cottage. I sat in that long, mellow-lighted old kitchen with the rain light stirring through the ivied windows and just watched. My eyes craved stillness after months of intensity. My soul craved gentle, crafted words. My hands craved my pen, and the slow, explorative space of my journal.
And now, I am back in Oxford. And I’m writing afresh, but not an academic essay this time. Friends, I’ve plunged into the journey of my next book, of this new world of words that will be my tribute to the books, the words, the stories that formed me. A book that will, I hope, be a gift to those who read it, an invitation into the splendors of the reading life in all its comfort, its wonder, its hope. I’ll be writing more here again and my heart swells with the joy of free, creative time and the freedom to write afresh in this dear old space. A new season pounds on the heels of the old…let the next adventure begin.
If you’ve stuck around this long, bless you. I’ll write again soon.
The more I study this image, the more I find. The whole of creation is caught up in this presentation of the Cross as the cosmic renewal of life, love, and fellowship. I especially love the detail of chickens and flowers and little animals; these are charming but also a powerful image of incarnational life reaching into the very tiniest corners of the ordinary, intent to redeem. Thus, continued:
The image central to our first piece of art, the apse mosaic in the church of San Clemente in Rome, is that of the Cross as a living tree whose burgeoning life is a living vine encircling the world in total renewal. Though dating to a later period, this piece robustly embodies the vision of quickened life inherent in the spirit of the early church and its emphasis on Christ’s victory over death. Constructed in the twelfth century and dedicated to Pope St. Clement (supposed to be either first or third in the line of St. Peter’s successors), the mosaic sits over the high altar, drawing the eye to the central figure of a peaceful Christ on a living cross, with the apse filled by the tendrils of the vines that grow from the foot of the cross, each circled vine picturing an aspect of human culture, work, or creation, the whole of the picture crammed with human and animal life and activity.
It is fascinating to note that in early Christian portrayals of Christ in art, Jesus was not pictured on the Cross until the 5th century. The early church was intent upon the portrayal of Christ as risen, the victor over death and redeemer of creation. Even in the earliest extant images of the crucifixion (in a series of ivory panels dated c. 420, and a rougher image on a church door from Rome, dating c. 432) the Christ portrayed is alive, alert, and muscular, not defeated by the cross, but defeating it by his very presence on it. The vine cross in St. Clement reflects that life-affirming portrayal. Also worth noting is that though the image of the Cross as the tree of life isn’t frequent, there are other luminous examples, including the 14th c. painting by Pacino di Bonaguida, as well as the much later image created by Sir Edward Burne Jones in 1888 for St Paul’s Within-the-Walls in Rome, suggesting a recurring fascination with this symbolic image. Christopher Irvine describes it as ‘ubiquitous’ in Christian ‘liturgy and iconography’, alluding to a phrase of the Venerable Bede ‘about the cross being planted at the centre of the world’[i].
The cross, in this great work, reflects exactly that, sitting in the centre of the apse and the centre of what can be seen as a garden, the self-giving of Christ in Gethsemane making it a second and renewed garden of Eden. Furthering this reading are the four streams portrayed as flowing from the foot of the Cross, the four rivers of Eden renewed, with harts portrayed quenching their thirst, a clear allusion to Psalm 42, and also perhaps to the water that Jesus offered to the Samaritan woman. These images of life rooted in and springing forth from Christ’s death communicate several theological ideas.
First is the incarnational emphasis on Christ’s given body as restorative of, not just the soul of mankind, or even of peace between God and mankind, but rather the whole of creation. As Torrance made clear in his magisterial work on the Incarnation, the work of Christ was to ‘assume our human nature as we have it in the fallen world that he might heal, sanctify and redeem it’[ii]. Christ was the second Adam, Gethsemane was the Garden of Eden renewed, and because of Christ’s already redemptive life, his death accomplishes the victory in which Paul exults in Romans 15:55.
‘Recapitulation’ is the reality pictured in the apse mosaic, a model of atonement drawn from the writings of Ireneaus ‘whose ‘central element is… the restoring and perfecting of creation’[iii]. Indeed, the whole world appears to be framed in the whorled leaves stretching round the apse. Within their circles are images of every aspect of human culture and endeavour; medicine, law, agriculture, religion, right down to the delightful addition of a housewife feeding her chickens in the left hand corner. The vines rooted in the cross directly suggest Jesus’ words at the Last Supper of ‘abide in me’. They present a profoundly Incarnational picture, portraying the whole of creation renewed by its rootedness, its ‘abiding’ in the given body of Jesus. The kingdom of heaven thus comes in the local, particular spaces of daily human life as they are rooted in the Incarnational life of Christ.
Second is the cross as a place of life renewed and death defeated, with the emphasis on what is created afresh, rather than what is lost. There is no hint here of God’s wrath or of Christ as punished, elements inherent in a penal view of the atonement (to be discussed below), but rather as God and Christ both participating in the total self-gift of Jesus to restore the lost creation and humanity. The underlying idea is one of victory as a symbol of excruciating torture and violent death has been transformed by Jesus’ sacrificial death into the enduring symbol of verdant life. The atonement emphasis in this work is upon Christ’s self-gift as restorative rather than punitive. His hands are opened upward as he gives his body as the seed from which the new life of humanity and creation grows. His eyes are closed, not in resistance or agony, but in what appears to be quiet acceptance. Irvine observes that though this is not the ‘open-eyed victorious Christ of earlier liturgical art’, his death is portrayed as ‘release…to the new and burgeoning life’ of ‘God’s redeeming work’.[iv]
Third is the presence of God the Father in this crucifixion and renewal. A strong theology of Incarnation makes God the Father active and present in the person of Christ, not separated from Jesus, but participatory in his redemptive life. God is both ‘the reconciler and the reconciled’[v], and in the mosaic he is represented by the great hand that reaches out of heaven (and the ceiling of the apse) to hold the top of the Cross. There is here, in the words of 20th century theologian Gustave Aulen, ‘no cleavage between Incarnation and atonement’[vi]. Rather, as Hebrews has it, Christ is the very image of God, and that image, as the contemporary theologian Hans Boersma poignantly argues, is that of a welcoming Father, a hospitable God imaged in the apse by the opened hands of Christ and the protective hand of the Father. The imagery of the apse mosaic is thus of an all-encompassing redemption accomplished in the very person of the incarnate God as his life, and willing death, renews every aspect of humanity and creation.
[i] Irvine, Christopher The Cross and Creation in Christian Liturgy and Art (London: SPCK Publishing, 2013) pg. 163
[ii] T.F. Torrance, The Incarnation, (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008) pg. 62
Well friends, I’m about to go all academic on you – or at least as academic as art, story, song obsessed me can get – by giving you a taste of what I’ve been working on in the past couple of years. I yearn to write here, to have time to work out more creatively the ideas I’m discovering academically. That will come – and this season of study is so rich. But I hate to leave a static silence, so I’ll let you see where my curiosity has been roaming in the past year. (And you can pray for me as I study for my exams – three more weeks!)
This essay was one from last year in which I looked at different models of atonement theology through the lens of art. I will admit, I have combined theology and art or literature in as many of my essays as I could because I so believe in the imagination as a ‘truth-bearing faculty’ (thank you, Malcolm Guite). I deeply believe that theological truth can be encountered and known in a ‘language without words’, and the power of this shapes us in a further and different way from doctrinal statements alone. In art, story, or song, we are given the chance to see theology afresh, to encounter its power and beauty in image.
So. It’s a bit technical. But I’ll work it out someday in poetry and story too. Let us begin:
In the opening to his book on the subject of beauty as ‘a category indispensable to Christian thought’, David Bentley Hart observes that ‘the church has no argument …more convincing than the form of Christ.’[i] Hans Urs von Balthasar echoes this by describing the ‘beauty’ of the Cross, noting that it is ‘unbearable’ to a worldly aesthetics.[ii] Yet one of the primary ways that the Cross has been presented throughout history is in countless works of art, created both for the sacred realm of church, and the wider arena of culture. That these works of image and imagination are also ‘arguments’, able to communicate theological truth, is where this essay begins. For as John Ruskin, the great art critic observed, ‘great nations write their autobiographies in ‘their deeds…their words… and the book of their art…and the last is the most trustworthy’[iii].
Replacing ‘nations’ with the institution of the Church, this essay will open with a brief exploration of the way in which the form of Christ is presented in the autobiography of its art, presenting both theological claims and the history of the Church in a language without words. Our specific focus will then turn to artistic depictions of Christ’s death, and the theologies of atonement that they embody. We will survey major models of atonement theology, using this basis to explore what two specific pieces of art communicate regarding the death of Christ. The pieces of focus will be the ‘vine cross’ mosaic in the apse of the church of San Clemente, in Rome, and a lithograph by Walter Spitzer, created as an illustration for the French writer Malraux’s novel, La Tentation de l’occident(The Temptation of the West).
To open, we must briefly examine the validity of art as a means of theological communication. In a modern context shaped by Enlightenment empiricism, truth, even theology, is commonly regarded as the transmission of objective statements that can be analysed and argued. This concept of knowing is one that grew concurrently with the scientific age, in which materialism and objectivity moulded our understanding of knowledge as something observed and quantified. But as postmodern theory, not to mention theologians like Rowan Williams, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and generations of our ancestors would instantly recognize, some knowledge cannot be reduced to stated information. In evaluating the potential of art to communicate theology, we must first recognize that truth can be present in a language other than words, whether of image, emotion, or experience.
In Richard Viladesau’s explanation, the communication of art is ‘nonverbal, but… not for that reason pre-rational or pre-spiritual’[iv]. Art can actually be ‘a way of thinking’[v] theologically in and of itself, allowing us a qualitatively different understanding via image and symbol from the knowledge gained by ratiocination. Jeremy Begbie says that ‘the arts give expression to a metaphorical way of perceiving the world… which reminds us there is always more to the world than we can name, control, and grasp’[vi]. Rather than standing apart from the doctrine we wish to understand, quantifying and describing it, we can look through a piece of art, gaining a ‘symbolic apprehension’ of ‘theological truth’[vii]. This immersive knowledge is precisely the alternate view that a piece of art can offer us as we look through its portrayal of Christ.
Gerardus van der Leeuw gives this theological shape with his assertion (quoted by Viladesau) that ‘a theological understanding of the arts must begin with soteriology,’ with Christ’s incarnational representation of God giving ‘art and religion their common essence as answers’[viii] or responses to the startling fact of the Incarnation. In this, one hears echoes of Tolkien’s idea that artists are ‘co-creators’, makers made in the image of a Creator, or the poet Madeleine L’Engle’s concept of the artist as participating in the ‘courageous obedience’ of Mary, mother of Jesus, becoming a ‘bearer of the work’[ix] at the request of the Holy Spirit. Both writers recognise that art shares in the incarnational task of Christ as He comes to live in all believers so that the believing artist can participates with the Holy Spirit in revealing Christ to the world.
The resulting multifaceted presentation of Christ powerfully conveys the reality that theology is not static nor wholly contained in one doctrinal system. In a mode profoundly different from stated truth, art allows us to ‘see’ the crucifixion through another’s eyes, enlarging our own perspective while helping us to recognise the limited nature of our view point when it remains in isolation. When centuries of artistic portrayals of the same theological event are set side-by-side, we immediately grasp the various ways in which the artists have seen this event, and the theological ideas shaping their aesthetic communication.
Art is thus inherently a portrayal of church history as well, enfleshing the doctrinal arguments and developments of the Church in the imagery of its devotional, architectural, and popular art. As witnessed in Richard Harries’ book examining ‘the passion in art’[x] through the centuries, artists of every age ‘could not avoid making a doctrinal point’[xi] in their works. The art of the catacombs, of church basilicas, or prayer books and privately commissioned paintings, is a unique record of theological debate and imagination. Art is thus uniquely suited to a discussion of differing theological viewpoints in that a picture offers a literally alternate point of ‘view’, not a differently worded or argued statement. We encounter their particular theological emphasis in the immediacy of image…
…to be continued.
‘Vine Cross’ in apse of San Clemente, Rome
[i] Hart, David Bentley The Beauty of the Infinite (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2004), p. 3
[ii] von Balthasar, quoted in Viladesau, Richard, Theological Aesthetics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 149
[iii] Ruskin, John St. Mark’s Rest: The history of Venice, written for the help of the few travellers who still care for her monuments, (Oxford: 1879), pg. vii
[iv] Viladesau, Richard, Theological Aesthetics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pg. 16
[v] Viladesau, Richard, Theological Aesthetics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pg. 16
I may have three essays to finish (20,000 words all told), two exams to study myself silly for, and you know, laundry to do and floors to clean, but I was up and out the door at 5:30 today with the birds singing me down the streets. May Morning in Oxford is a spectacle not to be missed, a child-hearted festival that makes me want to laugh and dance all at once. And let us be honest, that’s exactly what all the Morris dancers on the street do.
I joined the restless, happy crowd as the sky blushed with dawn and right at the stroke of 6, the Magdalen College choir raised their lovely voices in a hymn sung on the top of the Magdalen College Tower for centuries. And the crowd hushed (mostly, helped by vigorous ‘shusshing’!) to hear the woven harmonies raised to open the merry month of May:
If you’ve never heard of Oxford’s May Morning, go here for the BBC ‘s take on this 500-year-old tradition.
But the gist of this delightful festival day is that at dawn on the 1st of May, the Magdalene College choir welcomes the spring with the Hymnus Eucharisticus, a song of praise lifted to God at start of the joyous May season. It’s sung in Latin, but here’s the first verse:
We worship you, O God the Father, we offer you our praise, for you nourish our bodies, and minds with heavenly grace…
And then, a vividly imaged blessing is said, evoking the luxuriant beauty of spring and asking that it spur us to love and grace… or something close to that. I’ve searched and searched and can’t find the text. But the pith of it made my heart swell with thanks for the beauty of the earth today, for the wholeness always on its way to find us even here in the broken place. And it reminded me of this gorgeous tapestry that I found last week and have been waiting to show you:
This is by Pauline Baynes, the original illustrator of The Chronicles of Narnia. Look at it! It’s the whole of creation in redeemed dance! It reminds me so richly of the ending to C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra, where he describes the great music and harmony of all living creatures in an unfallen world. This circled dance is the original reality, and its the one we’re journeying toward in Christ. It’s a feast for heart and eye.
Friends, may the first morning of merry May set you dancing in heart and body.
And now, I really do have to go act like a responsible student again…
A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe