While on the subject of both 1) awesome things I was fortunate to watch and 2) the holy gift of creativity, here are the videos of the presentations from the God’s Imagination and Ours: The Creator, Creation, and Creativity seminar Bethlehem College and Seminary hosted last month. I was able to attend with Kristin and my bros Daniel Mulder and Luke Tanis and had an absolute blast. You’ll hear me bellowing deep, uproarious laughs of pure, worshipful glee as the presenters unpack the source, the power, the telos and the delight of divine and human creativity.
Unfortunately Bethlehem didn’t provide footage of Joe Rigney’s interview with N.D. Wilson the previous night. Before that began Wilson’s new short film “The Hound of Heaven” was premiered and I was pretty blown away that an evangelical was responsible for this masterful tone poem. (Propaganda had a lead part, so that only amplified its fantasticity.) “The Hound” served as a great launching pad for the evening’s examination of both the weaknesses and the surprising potential of evangelical art.
Straight away, art is about the fantasy harmonics echoing through the discovery of a world- not the self. This introduced the audience to what Wilson describes as the “cape-and-beret problem”: the problem of self-importance. Art is too regularly treated as the domain of elites and their nearly incomprehensible self-expression. “Self-expression” is the undisciplined, frantic overflow of self-obsession, paraded as something noteworthy and important. The reason there are so many jokes about artist-types is precisely because so much of what passes for creativity is not, in fact, creative- we too regularly settle for getting drunk on our delusions of grandeur and then plagiarize in the wrong ways. Art isn’t meant to explore the inner psyche or prove our importance- it’s to “nourish and catechize the soul,” Wilson preached.
The bankruptcy of secularism has tainted our view of our own (admittedly, overall embarrassing) artistic output, making it inordinately shameful in our eyes. Does it stand up against enduring works from the past? We shouldn’t pretend the majority of it does. And yet the typical Amish romance is still routinely superior to the typical bodice ripper filling the racks in the grocery store- in the context of garbage,” at least, Wilson quipped. It’s worth all the misfires when works such as The Lord of the Rings or Gilead or The Power and the Glory can be gifted to the world by those who confess Christ.
He then addressed something I’m often at pains to emphasize, namely that fantasy isn’t escapism- it’s a make-up call, alerting readers to how crazy our world really is. We are compelled to write fantasy not to lie, but to imitate the truth of the world we find ourselves a part of, a world outrageous in its complexity and enchantment (to use a potentially unhelpful world many employ in contemporary art history discourse). We need fantasy to reawaken us to the magic of our world. Secular discourse dissects and fragments our world to make it safe for idolatry. In this way of seeing things there’s nothing remarkable about giant tin cans that fly when you light liquid on fire, or about bags of meat that suck in oxygen to keep bipeds like us alive, or the enormous ball of fire millions of miles away that shines light which a seed in a crack in your sidewalk eats to grow up and supply you with the oxygen your meat bags suck in. Or the fact that the pews we were all sitting in were almost 100% empty space and yet held our flesh and bones in place just fine, thank you very much. Make no mistake- all of this is magic, for the Logos is holding all things together by his word of power.
In our fallenness, however, we opt for the shallowness of a much simpler world, one in which we play the central role and bow only to gods we craft in our image. But in so doing we numb ourselves to the astonishing beauty and grace and symmetry that are left as sign posts in this world to the One who alone gives life.
During the book signing afterwards I confronted Wilson with a nagging point of contention. “You say it’s a mistake to presume Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox make better art, but look at most of the examples you named tonight: Tolkien, Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Dostoevsky… The only Protestants you named were Marilynne Robinson and C.S. Lewis. It seems to me the question isn’t whether an artist’s Roman Catholic or not but what their understanding of the sacraments is.”
“Exactly,” Wilson answered. “How can evangelicals produce anything transcendent when the Lord’s Table is merely a memorial? When corporate worship is an ad hoc production cut off from the Spirit’s guiding presence and activity? One’s art will never rise above their liturgy.”
Wilson’s polemics served as an excellent introduction to the following day’s seminar:
This was in many ways a highlight for me. A Baptist quoting Thomas Aquinas (and approvingly, at that)? Hope is alive! I was enormously encouraged to see the tradition resourced throughout his presentation in a way I dared not expect. And he mined it to great effect to unpack Tolkien’s cosmology and anthropology. A wonderful critique of technology followed: magic and machinery are poles along a single spectrum, for both are man’s evil resistance to creaturehood. Both are attempts to escape finitude and grasp at something we were never made to be. Context, contingency and patience are jettisoned in order to stand over against the world, to manipulate rather than influence, to bypass process and time itself. We hate those things which belong to our creaturely finitude and remind us we are not God. (Case in point: most of us in the audience had probably already caressed our phones at least twice by the time he arrived at this section of his talk.) But this doesn’t stop us from suicidally pursuing the impossible. Tolkien weaves this truth into the very heart of the world he sub-created as a fantasy equivalent to the real reign of sin and death and locates it in the first one who would be God: Melkor, the mightiest of Tolkien’s “archangels,” Middle-Earth’s Satan figure. “Melkor’s greatest sin was thinking his puny, creaturely shoulders could carry the weight of lordship.” Here is the archetypal sin which births all others, a cancer infecting the whole of creation. And here is a rebuke against our monstrous arrogance that, despite our delusions, can never give life but only take it away. Fantastic stuff.
And here we are again, ecclesiology’s and the sacraments’ formation of the disciple- liturgy has to come under discussion, and I’m pleased to report that when I asked Dr. Crutchmer if corporate worship should disciple the imagination he answered, “Lex credendi lex orendi.” Again, this man is a Baptist! I love it!
The nerd quotient was stupendously high all morning, so it should come as no surprise that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were referenced approximately every, oh, twenty-two and a half seconds, so as a bonus, here’s the conclusion to a new piece on the Inklings from the Chronicle of Higher Education (ht David Dahl) capturing beautifully our older brothers’ theology of the cross:
There is another point that may explain the hostility of critics like Germaine Greer: The Inklings were, one and all, guilty of the heresy of the Happy Ending. A story that ends happily is, some believe, necessarily a sop to wishful thinking, a refusal to grow up. In “On Fairy-Stories” — the closest we come to a manifesto for the Inklings’ aesthetic — Tolkien turns this charge on its head, arguing that our deepest wishes, revealed by fairy stories and reawakened whenever we permit ourselves to enter with “literary belief” into a secondary world, are not compensatory fantasies but glimpses of an absolute reality. When Sam Gamgee cries out, “O great glory and splendour! And all my wishes have come true!” we are not in the realm of escapism, but of the Gospel, in all its strangeness and beauty.
Yet although the Inklings were guilty of the heresy of the Happy Ending, they were not optimists; they were war writers who understood that sacrifices must be made and that not all wounds will be healed in this life. Their belief in the Happy Ending was compatible with considerable anguish and uncertainty here below. One may be as gloomy as Puddleglum or as convinced as Frodo that “All my choices have proved ill” without losing hope in a final redemption.
And it is on the strength of this hope that the Inklings’ project of recovery continues to unfold. Though surpassed in poetry and prose style by the very modernists they failed to appreciate, though surpassed in technical sophistication by any number of distinguished academic philosophers and theologians, the Inklings fulfilled what many find to be a more urgent need: not simply to restore the discarded image, but to refresh it and bring it to life for the present and future.
Happy Pentecost everyone!