No room at the inn.
“Committed, engaged, ambitious, informed art does not mix with dedicated, serious, thoughtful, heartfelt religion,” says The Art Institute of Chicago’s James Elkins.1 In his new book On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, he writes: “To fit in the art world, work with a religious theme has to demonstrate the artist has second thoughts about religion… Ambiguity and self-critique have to be integral to the work. And it follows that irony must pervade the art, must be the air it breathes.”
My, my. Isn’t it ironic that dedicated, serious, thoughtful, heartfelt Christians include second thoughts, ambiguity and self-critique in committed, engaged, ambitious, informed art2 They’re integral. It’s not mixing apples with oranges but apples with apples.
For centuries, serious Christians have believed that coming to faith is only the beginning of being undeceived. In other words, Christians don’t assume they are 100% correct all the time (remember Southern Baptists and slavery?). Having second thoughts can be healthy, since it’s a “reconsideration of a previous opinion or decision.” Artists and atheists, and everyone else, can get it “broadly right” (in the fine phrase of Edward Norman) since everyone is made in the image of God. It’s not the case that Christians are always right and everyone else is always wrong, as C.S. Lewis wrote:
I couldn’t believe that nine-hundred and ninety-nine religions were completely false and the remaining one true. In reality, Christianity is primarily the fulfillment of the Jewish religion, but also the fulfillment of what was vaguely hinted at in all the religions at their best. What was vaguely seen in them all comes into focus in Christianity.3
Serious Christians who are artists regularly reconsider their views. They welcome second, third, fourth and fifth thoughts – the mark of an honestly open mind. Yet they also clamp down on something solid. Mr. Elkins seems closer to H.G. Wells, who, as G.K. Chesterton described him, “thought that the object of opening the mind is simply opening the mind. Whereas I am incurably convinced that the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” Second thoughts are a hallmark of the Christian faith and of serious Christians who are artists.
Second, Scripture is chock full of ambiguity. Take this seemingly simple statement found in II Corinthians 5:14: “For the love of Christ compels us.” The Greek phrase can be rendered “my love for Christ” or “Christ’s love for me.” Big difference. Yet the grammar and context offer no clear answer. They are ambiguous – just like many of my responses to my kids’ questions as they get older. Ambiguity and uncertainty can foster wisdom. My hunch is that God, at appropriate times, is intentionally ambiguous. This ease with ambiguity is rooted in our finitude: “we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”4 Ease with ambiguity is also a hallmark of the Christian faith and of serious Christians who are artists.
Self-critique is a third hallmark of the Christian story. The story begins with our conscience; an essential element of human nature found in the Old and New Testament scriptures. A healthy conscience is self-aware, a mark of a leader according to author Daniel Goleman. In his 1995 bestseller, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Goleman says a leader exhibits 1) self-awareness, 2) self-regulation, 3) motivation, 4) empathy, and 5) social skill. Self-awareness equals a good conscience. This kind of conscience welcomes criticism – from outside and from inside – and is why self-critique is a hallmark of the Christian faith and of serious Christians who are artists.
To be fair, James Elkins might be reacting to Thomas Kinkade, one of the more visible religious artists today. Yet bad example makes bad law. Kincade entertains no second thoughts, ambiguity or self-critique. Elkins would do better to consider the work of Makoto Fujimura and the International Arts Movement (www.iamny.org). These are serious artists who embrace faith, second thoughts, ambiguity and self-critique.
At the end of the day, Elkins says the art world “can accept a wide range of ‘religious’ art by people who hate religion, by people who are deeply uncertain about it, by the disgruntled and the disaffected and the skeptical, but there is no place for artists who express straightforward, ordinarily religious faith.” The irony is that the committed, engaged, ambitious, informed art he longs for has long benefited from the dedicated, serious, thoughtful, heartfelt religion he rejects. If Mr. Elkins is serious about art, he might begin by practicing what he preaches (even if that is a religious metaphor). This might include entertaining second thoughts about his strident rejection of religion and adopting a stance that is open to critique. Or is it only Christians who have to entertain second thoughts, embrace ambiguity and be open to critique?
1 Matthew J. Milliner, “The Art of Transgression” First Things, December 2007 Number 178, p.18
2 Rosiland Fergusson, Cassell’s Dictionary of English Idioms (New York, New York: Sterling Publishing Co. 2003), p.295
3 C.S. Lewis, God In The Dock, ed. Walter Hooper. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), p.54
4 I Corinthians 13:12