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Faithful Novelty

Why artists and pastors need each other to enrich the life of the church.

is that non-order can easily become an end in itself, and (ironically) can flip back into some form of inflexible order remarkably quickly. As many of us have experienced, nothing is quite as predictable as a weekly “spontaneous” church service.

Interplay

I am caricaturing drastically, of course. But if there is any truth here, we can say this much at least: that one of the reasons artists and pastors need each other is to learn and relearn together that the novelty which enriches the life of the church comes not from escaping order, but from the interplay between order and non-order , between the stable chords and the improvised flourish, between the faithful bass of God’s grace and God’s out-of-the-blue refreshment. Theologically, this is the interplay between the givenness of creation’s order, rooted in Christ the Creator, and the creativity of the Spirit as that order is developed towards its final end; between both God’s covenant faithfulness and God’s endlessly invigorating and “excessive” surprises. 

And the interplay is all the richer when—miracle of miracles—disorder is taken into its momentum, when the ugly and sordid is taken up into the Spirit’s re-creativity. Such is the unforeseeable yet gloriously coherent logic of Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost. Something of this came to light in a sculpture from Mozambique called “The Tree of Life” that stood in the atrium of the British Museum. In the Genesis account, the tree of life grew in the Garden of Eden, but access was forbidden. In Revelation 22, the tree reappears, standing on each side of the river of the water of life that flows from God’s throne, its leaves for the healing of the nations. The “Tree of Life” sculpture is constructed entirely from weapons reclaimed after Mozambique’s civil war. It calls to mind Isaiah’s vision of peace: “They will beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2:4).

The question for pastors, then, is this: are you prepared to allow artists room to provoke the church to venture into risky arenas of novelty such as a fresh perspective on a parable, or an unexplored zone of culture? Are you prepared to allow artists to make mistakes in the interests of something fruitful that can’t be predicted? Are you prepared to relearn from artists the non-order that belongs to the heart of the Christian life? (Of course, plenty of pastors are adept at non-order already, which is all to the good.)

The question for artists is this: are you prepared to allow pastors to remind you that fruitful novelty comes only through inhabiting order? Are you willing to relearn form and composition, the grain of wood, the edge of a canvas, the harmony of strings, the innate rhythms of physical movement? Are you able to go on relearning the bass lines of artistic tradition, and, more fundamentally, the bass lines of theological wisdom that God uses to anchor the church in the faith? As T.S. Eliot so pointedly asked in his essays, how can we be original until we’ve lived inside a great tradition? How can we even begin to improvise in a way that captivates our culture until we have something profound to improvise with—until we have sat patiently with Dickinson and Milton, with Polanski and Tarkovsky, with Scarlatti and Stravinsky? And how can we hope to ensure we are improvising “in the Spirit” unless, at those most soul-shaping levels, we are nourished by the Scriptures, and by Augustine and Basil the Great, Aquinas and Calvin, Barth and Bonhoeffer? As theatre improviser Keith Johnstone put it, pursuing novelty for its own sake is like someone at the North Pole trying to walk north.

I end with a poem. It has been suggested that making art after Auschwitz is a kind of obscenity, a denial of horror, a shameful attempt to beautify what can never be beautiful. The point needs to be felt head on. At the same time, it should be part of our commitment to “never again” to find ways of living that refuse to allow the forces of death to take hold—which means finding ways to feast, exploring ways to revel, and embracing ways to rediscover non-order. Micheal O’Siadhail writes:

That any poem after Auschwitz is obscene?
Covenants of silence so broken between us
Can we still promise or trust what we mean?

Even in the dark of the earth, seeds will swell.
All the interweavings and fullness of being,
Nothing less may insure against our hell.

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