Artists are attracted to novelty. As legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel said, “In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.” That quest to generate something different and irreplaceable, the need to make something that stands out, and the drive to create something new seems built into the DNA of many artists.
Of course, the cultural expectations for the arts have contributed to this. In the last two centuries, doing “the next new thing” seems to be implicitly required for artists. Many artists—particularly those who work outside the church, and especially those who need to make a living from their art—feel a subtle pressure to create something original, preferably something cutting-edge. In the twentieth century, the growth of various avant-garde movements instilled habits of thinking about novelty that are still with us. Art embodies the pursuit of the totally fresh start—think of all the artistic attempts in the last century to begin again and wipe the slate clean: Futurism, dodecaphonism, neoclassicism, dadaism, photorealism.
We find an eagerness to break with the past, to clean away the detritus of tradition and outdated wisdom of yesterday, and to dismantle the scaffolding of convention. Nothing must be allowed to become old: unless we are constantly creating the ever-new thing, we are heading for death. To be original demonstrates that you are alive. To repeat is to be captive to the law of sin and death.
This fascination with novelty is one quality that makes artists awkward people to have around, especially for pastors who want a quiet life. Poets, painters, songwriters, fashion designers—professional creators are notoriously difficult to work with. They’re constantly resisting the pressure to please the largest number, always defending their artistic integrity, frequently asserting their entitlement to do something that hasn’t been done before, and often reserving their right to rub our noses in subversive novelty. And for many peace-loving pastors trying to hold together a fragile group of eccentric Christians, artists are about the last kind of person they need.
For those of us who have been in the church for some time, we can easily forget that newness is built into the gospel. The aroma of novelty is on every page of the New Testament. It pervades the fabric of the Christian message. But what kind of newness is this? And how can artists and pastors together discover it? At the very least, I suggest, it involves a remarkable interplay between order and non-order.
Order and Non-order
We must first subvert our common assumption that only two basic shapes are possible for our lives—order and disorder. The other day a friend took me into his kitchen, which was littered with letters, bills, unwashed dishes, bottles, and boxes. This instantly produced a flood of apology: “I’m so sorry about the mess!” That’s because disorder is usually seen as something to be ashamed of, an unhealthy sign of being out of control. Order, on the other hand, is something to be praised: “My, your house is tidy! I wish I could get mine like this.”
We transpose this view into our theology: order signifies that God is around. Regularity, predictability, reliability, and consistent patterns in the world speak of God’s ordering rule and refusal to let things slide into anarchy. Any opposition to order is seen as a mark of the opposition, the evil one, bringing confusion and destruction.
But are order and disorder the only options? What about laughter? The sound of laughter is hardly ordered—indeed, it is hard to predict and is anything but regular. At the same time, it’s anything but destructive; to the contrary, it often releases all sorts of possibilities. It’s a sign of goodness that is neither order nor disorder. In their book, Living in Praise: Worshipping and Knowing God (Baker Academic), laughter is an example of what Daniel Hardy and David Ford describe as “non-order,” or the “jazz-factor.”
Recall Sarah being told at the age of ninety she is to bear a child (Genesis 18:9-15). What does she do? She laughs. This is the hilarity released by the Holy Spirit in response to news of non-order—childbirth in advanced old age. In the New Testament, non-order explodes into the world supremely on Easter, subverting every expectation. More than that, it’s made available to us, accessible and enjoyable because of what happened at Pentecost.
Without non-order, there can be no newness. Without non-order, the world is condemned to futility, for in purely physical terms, everything is growing old and running down (as the physicists will remind us). In a world without newness the future is simply the unfolding of the past. The best we can hope for is to rearrange the existing order, to reshuffle our lives the way we might shuffle furniture around a room, knowing it will all need throwing out sooner or later. But in a world where Jesus has been raised from the grave—death being the ultimate enemy of all newness—non-order is possible, and through the Spirit, available to enjoy. We discover, as Gerard Manley Hopkins had it: “There lives the dearest freshness, deep down things.” We understand the clownlike remark of the painter Georges Rouault: “He who has forgotten how to laugh is only waiting to die”; we grasp the defiance of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who spoke of hilaritas while facing his own execution.
Pastors and Artists
Many pastors crave regular order because they assume that the only alternative is destructive disorder. (Pastors like this tend not to laugh much.) They rightly see the need for consistency, liturgy people can trust, and well-planned calendars. The problem is that they can easily end up ordering all the non-order out of life, like Harold Crick in Stranger than Fiction. Worship becomes cleansed of anything remotely spontaneous; church meetings are impeccably prepared and entirely devoid of surprise; agendas are followed to the minutest details, “any other business” kept to the barest minimum. I once worked with a pastor who, on our first meeting, gave me a firm shake with one hand and clutched a clipboard with the other. With this mindset, there must be no “other business,” only the business we can manage.
Project this perspective onto God—and the way we pastor a congregation will, of course, reflect what we really believe about God—and we find God becomes the embodiment of order ad infinitum, lifeless and dull (as many both in and out of the church sadly believe). Redemption will be viewed as God restoring things to the way they were, as if our Christian journey were headed for a rerun of Eden. It’s as if God were basically in the business of restoring balance to the world, matching good with evil in some kind of exact equivalence. Many theologies of the atonement work like this, where apparently all God does is match X amount of sin with Y amount of punishment, in order to restore “order.” Behind this theology lies a picture of God as impeccably balanced, a God of absolute equilibrium, self-contained proportion. We forget that evil can very easily masquerade as aesthetically perfect order: think of the military rally in a totalitarian state or the disciplined efficiency of the death camps of the 1940s.
If pastors tend to disparage non-order (for fear of disorder), creative artists tend to revel in it: the playful and experimental, the untamed improvisation, the off-the-cuff flourish. Award-winning architect Daniel Libeskind writes: “The tyranny of the grid! I fight against it all the time: buildings designed like checkerboards, with repetitive units that march along the same track. A marching grid is not what life is about. ... What good is a putative sense of order, if it’s a false sense of order?” What good is order without non-order?
And the question is hardly surprising, coming from an artist. The arts by their very nature are not tied to tight structures of predictability. You bring into existence something that didn’t exist before, something that couldn’t have been predicted to exist in exactly this form. That captures part of what the arts are about. When Bonhoeffer spoke about the arts as belonging to the sphere of “freedom,” he was saying they are not bound to the past and future by some chain of cause and effect: the past has not made them necessary, and we do not have to practice art to achieve a future goal. We certainly don’t need the arts for biological survival—it is unlikely we will ever read a death certificate that lists a cause of death as “a lack of music.”
Moreover, as Rowan Williams has recently stressed in his book Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love, the arts work by generating an excess of metaphorical allusion, which means we can’t spell out in advance all their possible meanings. Although not necessarily vague, their meanings are uncontainable. Les Murray, in his poem “Poetry and Religion,” speaks of God as “being in the world as poetry / is in the poem, a law against its closure.”
The problem here, though, 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.
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.
A black sun only shines out of a vacuum.
Cold narrowings and idols of blood and soil.
And all the more now, we can’t sing dumb!
A conversation so rich it knows it never arrives
Or forecloses; in a buzz and cross-ruff of polity
The restless subversive ragtime of what thrives.
Endless dialogues. The criss-cross of flourishings.
Again and over again our complex yes.
A raucous glory and the whole jazz of things.
The sudden riffs of surprise beyond our ken;
Out of control, a music’s brimming let-go.
We feast to keep our promise of never again.
Micheal O’Siadhail, “Never,” in The Gossamer Wall (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 2002), p. 120. Reprinted by kind permission of Bloodaxe Books.