Art and Salvation

My father and mother were/are both artists. My father, now deceased, was a master carpenter. My mother, now living with us, is an artist according to the more usual mediums of clay, oils, pastels, pen and ink, etc. I was always encouraged to participate in their artistic endeavors. Sadly, I was endowed by the Holy Spirit with the same gift of artistic “genius” (see Roman mythology). Now that my mom lives with us, I am, perhaps, being invited to deal with the old wound of labeling myself as “artless.” Perhaps the narrative of my life has been and is the quest for the medium of my artistic expression. Perhaps I have always been attempting to prove something to myself as well as my mom and dad. (By the way, Taylor, Madison, and Joshua all have the artistic “genius” in the usual sense. I guess it skipped a generation :o)…

The attempt to prove something isn’t necessarily all bad. It could be positive. It could, admittedly, be a desire to prove that I have a right to exist, in which I am always trying to prove to someone/everyone that I didn’t slip in the side door of human existence without a ticket. On the positive side, I could be pursuing the realization of my artistic identity as an affirmation that I am authentically human. This second way equates human being with artistic identity.

“Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identify, our own destiny. We are free beings and sons of God. This means to say that we should not passively exist, but actively participate in (God’s) creative freedom, in our own lives, and in the lives of others, by choosing the truth. To put it better, we are even called to share with God the work of creating the truth of our identity.” Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

“It is essential to human being to fall apart, to fragment, disintegrate, and to experience the despair that comes with lack of wholeness. To what can we turn, then, in this moment of crisis? I believe it is at this critical moment that the possibility of creative living arises. If we can let go of our previous identities and move into the experience of the void, then the possibility arises for new forms of existence to emerge. Poiesis, the creative act, occurs as the death and re-birth of the soul. . . We are called upon constantly to re-form ourselves, to engage in what James Hillman calls ‘soul-making’ . . . The soul finds its form in art.” Stephen K Levine, Poeisis: The Language of Psychology and the Speech of the Soul

The “creative act,” to quote Stephen Levine, “is an affirmation of being, an attempt to bring something new into the world.” (a disclaimer — I have, admittedly only read the “Introduction” to the book from which the quotes I have included are taken. My initial perusal of the book reveals that I would probably disagree with just about everything else in it. Nonetheless, I was incredibly intrigued and attracted by his words and the chords it struck deep within me even if they are taken out of context…) It could be driven by a need to prove one’s right to exist or it could be the fruit of receiving one’s right to exist as a gift of God’s artistic expression. It could be the acceptance of a mandate to exert the influence that each and every human being has been created to exert in God’s redemptive design in Christ Jesus as a artist in the medium(s) of faith, hope, and love.

To “receive myself as an artist” might just be an essential way of understanding what it means to receive my true identity in Christ Jesus. To be created in the image of God and grow into the likeness of God in Christ Jesus is to receive and consummate my identity as a child of the “One True Artist” if I may be so bold as to attach such a moniker to God. It is to be, at one and the same time, completely and redemptively “dis-illusioned” to borrow Bonhoeffer’s word. That requires a redemptive community of would-be and already artists. Indeed, the Body of Christ might be understood as an “artist’s colony.”

Someone must die for someone to live. That is the essential message of the Gospel. I do not mean that is just the penal, substitutional atonement sense, but also the personal sense. I must die to the artistless self to be born to the artistic self. My life-long struggle (and I do mean struggle) to realize and receive my identity as an artist in my own right, unique in my artistic expression and medium(s), is not an illusion. It is the redemptive struggle to live an authentically human life. If I yearn and strive for it and die to all that hinders it, a work of art does emerge through me that is mysteriously an expression of myself and the artistic identity and giftedness of the “One True Artist,” God Himself, by His grace/love.

Fr. Thomas


3 thoughts on “Art and Salvation

  1. There is much in this post to respond to. I’ll take the Stephen Levine quote first, because though superficially it sounds right, on reflection I find I disagree violently with it. It seems to be saying that we can create something new – which of course we cannot, only God can. To thus affirm our being, then, is to set ourselves in opposition to God, to make “God” of ourselves – the greatest of blasphemies.

    I see human creation as a response to God the Creator, not as competition or even mimicry. It grows out of a deep appreciation and thanksgiving to Him for what He creates, and in this, we find our true selves and our place in the world. Our artistic creations are exactly like the crayon pictures small children make as offerings of love to their parents. They are offerings of innocent love, not “achievements” to garner admiration. God hangs them on his refrigerator with great love and pride – not in the quality of the work, but in the love that produced it. This sweet relationship is the source of true creativity.

  2. Thanks for the comment and its directness.

    I agree with you in your conclusion IF that what Levine is saying is actually what he is saying . I guess we would have to sit down with him and ask him…. But, that is not what I am saying. I would ask that you read the Thomas Merton quote in concert with the Levine quote to gain a sense of what I took away from Levine’s statement. (Once again, he may have meant something completely different. But, I can still take away my impression and use it regardless of what he meant. That is why I can use clips from great movies to make a point regardless of whether or not that was what the director or writer was trying to say.) Cooperation not competition. But, cooperation is not passivity either. Competition with God and passivity in the presence of God regarding our identity are both blasphemous.

    Fr. Thomas

    • I think I’m getting tangled up in all this! I was responding only to the second and shorter quote from Levine, which was probably not helpful. Reading the Merton quote and the long Levine quote together, I am with you for the most part, I think, although I still have a little question: are you, as you suggested, equating artistic identity with full humanity? Would this, then, mean that everyone is in some sense an artist, or at least a potential artist? I guess this would get to defining what “artist” means. It’s an interesting and attractive thought, and one that I have played with only a little, that this is true – that the creative act is THE fully human act, and what it means is the co-creation, with God, of the true self.

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