The Tricky Thing Is

We are made for community—for many communities. But finding community in the arts can be a cause of great hope or great brokenness.

November 26th, 2010

In 2008, two things troubled me in culture: the death of author David Foster Wallace and a YouTube clip showing youth group kids singing, "You spin me right round, Jesus, right round," and whirling their socks in the air. The worship leader had told them they were on holy ground and needed to remove their shoes and wave their socks.

If I'd seen the YouTube clip at a different time, I might have laughed or felt a moment's dismay and moved on. It was bizarre to see what the quest for relevance can inspire, and it was outrageous to consider Moses' trembling at the burning bush turned into socks wheeling through strobe lighting. But since I felt freshly hurt by the death of an author I loved, the youth group silliness actually felt painful. It felt painful because Wallace's death had made me realize the extent to which I identified with the literary community, and this YouTube clip made me squirm to identify with the church. "Forget it," I wanted to say, "I'm with the cool people."

In college, when I identified that the arts were, unquestionably, part of what made me tick, I thought the most difficult part of being a writer and artist would be discerning acceptable content. Growing up, I had sorted art and entertainment something like this:

  • "Edifying"
  • "Corrupting"
  • "Okay if you fast-forward a scene/mute a song/skip a few pages."

Discernment about content is important. As Cormac McCarthy's protagonist tells his son in The Road, "Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever." The trickiest thing, though, was going to be that finding community in the arts can be a cause of great hope or great brokenness.

We are made for community—for many communities. Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson saw life as a process of realizing how large one's community really is. The infant thinks life is just him and Mom. The toddler learns to embrace family and friends. The young reader picks up Anne of Green Gables and finds imaginary kindred. The adult risks intimacy. The elderly ponder the world as their community and hope they have made it better for the next generation. We are created not just for one community, but for the expanse of human community.

Art is an essential part of that. Saying that audiences love artists may conjure scenes from Trekkies or images of teeny boppers swooning over Justin Bieber. Yet, in a real, non-creepy, non-adolescent way, there is respect, admiration, and appreciation between artist and audience—and what is that, except love?

It's accurate, then, to say readers loved fiction writer and essayist David Foster Wallace, though most didn't know him and most didn't even know the fact or the extent of the depression he suffered. His suicide, at age 46, devastated the literary community. Reading Wallace's work, one sees a brilliant mind (he won a MacArthur "genius grant") having tremendous fun on the page. One also gets the sense that he was mining postmodern experience and evaluating those aspects that made life by turns delightful and absurd. He connected with a broad community that still grieves for him, and for good reason.

What concerns me is not that art can become a community, but that it is easy for any community to go haywire. Families can become ingrown and be threatened by outsiders. Friends can seek each other's approval to a co-dependent degree. Churches can demand to fill members' every social need.

The arts, too, can become insular. Simon and Garfunkel sing, satirically, "I have no need of friendship. Friendship causes pain. It's laughter and it's loving I disdain . . . I have my books and my poetry to protect me." The listener chuckles, picturing, maybe, a clove-smoking reader holed up in his shelf-lined apartment. The song portrays one harmful use of the arts—a way of avoiding face-to-face friendships and the pain of other communities.

Living in multiple, overlapping communities gets complicated. Where our community is, there, to an extent, our loyalty and love are, and there our identity is. What we love is messy, complicated, and often our loves compete.

C.S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces illustrates this well. Early in the book, the king of Glome sacrifices his daughter Psyche by abandoning her in the land of the gods. Instead of dying, Psyche marries Cupid. Psyche's sister Orual is unaware of this marriage and travels to find Psyche and bring her home. When the sisters meet, Orual demands and wheedles and whines that Psyche must return. Psyche meets this with gravity and calm. "Orual—think. How can I go back? This is my home. I am a wife." Psyche's love for her sister is not lessened one jot by being married to Cupid, yet her love for him means she cannot meet Orual's demand.

Union with Christ changes everything. There will be demands from other communities that Christians cannot meet. The arts bestow an aura of "cool," of wisdom, and of knowingness on those who drop the right names. It's easy to bask in the hipness of contemporary literature. Craving this identity-validating hipness can turn the arts into Community Number One, and instead of making and enjoying art as worship to God, we can make this an object of worship, an end in itself.

The arts can be a radiant part of a flourishing identity that Christ is remaking. Nonetheless, true flourishing cannot happen if the arts become the community around which everything else orders itself. And so, I can't say "I'm with the cool people" or, borrowing from Simon and Garfunkel, "I have no need of Christians, Christians cause me pain." (Or embarrassment.)

The pressure to say this is crushing. Christian visual artist Makoto Fujimura participated in a conference in which presenters wrote open letters to North American churches, and in his, he incisively identified the uneasy relationship between churches and artists: "We are often in the margins of your communities, being the misfits that we are." Artists sit on the outskirts, perceiving. They are fantastic at deconstruction. Writers can't read a book without deconstructing how the writing works, so it's hard for them not to look at how church is put together. To artists (and to many other postmodern folk), the way church looks is as much a message as the sermon. It can be difficult for the perceptive misfit to embrace the church as home. Certainly many have decided—most recently and famously novelist Anne Rice—that finding community there is impossible. As with Rice, they say, "I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider."

It's essential for the Christian artist to know, setting out, that the artistic community will tug strongly. This false promise will ring out again and again: "If I immerse myself in the arts, I will be made new; I will be a more whole person, with respected insight into culture and truth." The Christian artist must stare down this desire and know it is Christ who makes all things new, whole, right, and bountiful.

The Christian who wants to nurture Christian artists could help greatly by addressing questions of identity and community. The person who wants to encourage Christian artists could show hospitality, making artists at home in the church, and helping them, more and more, to make Christ their home. We need each other's help. All Christians will have other communities, but we have no other true home, and what one defines as home changes everything.

Topics: Arts
 

Rebecca Tirrell Talbot teaches writing at Concordia University Chicago and North Park University and writes monthly for The Curator. She lives in Chicago and works on her own creative writing—often while riding the El.

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