A few months ago, mine told me about a paperback book that he and his wife were reading. The book was “Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts” (Madison, Wisconsin, 2001, pp. 201) by Steve Turner.
My friend wanted me to read it because he thought that a number of ideas that Turner presents in the book were similar to ideas I have expressed in this weekly column. I was not eager to read the book because I was swamped with reading that I had to do for my courses at St. John’s. University, Jamaica.
I finally found time to read the paperback and I am glad that I did. I found Turner’s views not only interesting and provocative but I also found myself agreeing with much that he had written. A special treat was the style of writing. Turner has the talent of writing clearly about ideas that are not easy to express.
Part of the audience are evangelicals who may only be comfortable with art that is not explicitly religious. Believing that such a view of art is too narrow, Turner wants people to broaden their vision and see that there may be art that, at first sight, may not seem to be religious but actually presents a view of human nature and human activity that ultimately conveys a profound religious message.
I don’t pick films for the film festivals that I conduct or novels for the courses I teach at St. John’s and the Immaculate Conception Center, Douglaston, with evangelicals in mind. What I use as a criterion for both the films and the novels is art that presents a true, preferably deep view of the human person, and through that presentation either explicitly or implicitly offers insights into the mystery of God. Some of the films and novels are demanding but I believe any effort will be rewarded.
Turner wrote the following:
“…I don’t believe every artist who is a Christian should produce art that is a paraphrased sermon. A lot of Christian art is for the sake of art. But because art is also a record and reflects the questions and anxieties of the time, I would like to see contri- butions that reflect a Christian understanding of that time. I also would like to see them in the mainstream arts rather in the reli- gious subculture.” (p. 21)
If a work of art becomes a sermon, then it probably is a poor work of art. Every artist has some vision of reality, some vision that he or she is trying to convey about the way things are. But the artist should not try to convey that vision the way that a preacher conveys a vision. The artist must convey the vision by embodying it within the work. Any temptation that the artist experiences to give a homily or preach a sermon should be resisted. Each artwork has its own language and rules or guidelines and the artist should use that language and respect the rules and guidelines. A great artist can convey what he or she believes to be the truth by incarnating that truth in the work of art.
There was an oft-quoted statement by the head of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” I think Cohn basically was issuing the same warning as Turner.
Great art can speak to us, challenge us, entertain us or even inspire us but it does so implicitly rather than directly.
Perhaps an isolated experience of great art, such as a great film or a great novel, will have a minimal impact on a person but a constant diet of crumby films and superficial novels has to have a negative effect just as a diet of great films and novels has to be a positive influence.
Artists, who may be more sensitive to beauty than the rest of us, can embody that beauty in their work and so enrich our lives and help us experience something of the beauty which comes from God.
Father Robert Lauder, philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, is the author of “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” (Resurrection Press).