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What Is Christian Art?

“Mrs. L’Engle, I want to write Christian fiction–-how do I do it?”

The young woman, a college senior, waited expectantly. Madeleine L’Engle, teaching a class as a visiting writer, replied: “If you are truly and deeply a Christian, what you write is going to be Christian, whether you mention Jesus or not. And if you are not, in the most profound sense, Christian, then what you write is not going to be Christian no matter how many times you invoke the name of the Lord” (from Walking on Water – Reflections on Faith and Art).

What L’Engle is really saying is that to make Christian art, one cannot follow a formula. In Walking on Water, L’Engle comments that her Christianity and her art are inseparable—that they spring from the same source, and that often, it is not her faith that keeps her stories true, but the other way around: Her stories bring her back to faith in ways she could never have imagined. She talks, for example, about A Wrinkle in Time, which she was writing while struggling with deep doubt. At the time, she thought her theology in the book was rather heretical. She was shocked after the book came out when theologian friends assured her that A Wrinkle in Time is actually deeply orthodox.

Two of my favorite authors are C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. They share great British wit, skillfully vivid descriptions, the power of brilliant argument and many other things–but the one that impresses me most is the pervasive sense I have in both their writings that they are totally convinced. They are not hiding secret doubts. There is a sense in both their writings that if one were to lay out all the facts that fill this world on one huge table, then, seen in context, these facts would all point straight to the one true God. Lewis even noticed this quality in Chesterton’s writing. It is about Chesterton he is said to have commented, “If one wishes to remain unconverted, one should be careful what one reads.”

Neither author would presume to have examined all the evidence. But both of them examined many facts and many arguments and examined them honestly, and they both arrived at very similar conclusions–the same conclusion, in fact. It is their honest searching that makes them unafraid to speak boldly of what they believe; and it is their honest searching that lends such power to their apologetics. Or maybe I should say, it is their honest searching that led them to God; and it is God whose truth shines in their writing.

C.S. Lewis started out a vehement atheist but an honest questioner. He described himself as a deeply unwilling convert: He was greatly displeased to find more and more logical evidence for the truth of Christianity. And yet his intellectual integrity would not allow him to stop questioning, and, unwilling though he was, his questions led him to faith. Chesterton started out with no particular feelings either way about Christianity, but felt that his deepest beliefs about this world were at odds with modern thought. He felt like a renegade, someone exploring a new continent. Then he said he discovered that the ground he was covering was not new ground at all but ancient orthodoxy (from Orthodoxy), that the truths he held imbedded in his heart were not his truths only but the living heartbeat of Christianity.

A college art professor once told me that art is better at asking questions than it is at giving answers. At the time, the statement made me angry, because I like answers much better than questions. Life filled all with questions and no answers sounds like a nightmare to me. I still believe that art can give profound answers, but in the meantime I also see his point: It is the honest questioning in art that makes it powerful. In order to have Chesterton’s or Lewis’ un-defensive certainty, their honest assurance, you have to follow the path they did. And that is true in painting as much as it is in writing, as much as it is in living. You cannot start out assuming the answers or your questions will be dishonest and you will never find real answers.

In faith, there is an added dimension to our questioning: It’s not only academic but relational. But this is a special relationship: God is not like humans, who are threatened and scared if you ask them big questions. Even our deepest, darkest questions do not frighten God. As a matter of fact, God invites them. They are even included in the Bible. In the Psalms, David and his cohorts alternately fling angry questions and exuberant praises toward heaven and set the standard for what kind of questions we’re allowed to ask our Creator: all kinds–even whining, accusing, complaining.

Frederick Buechner once wrotethat doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. I know people for whom this is not true; for them, doubts were the worms in the heart of faith, and sometimes they ate out that heart and left faith hollow and dead. How can doubts deepen one person’s faith and destroy another’s? Doubts are questions. Maybe it’s where you direct those questions that determines what your doubts will do to your faith. Maybe where you direct your art determines what it will do to your faith, too, and to other people’s faith.

If you assume that merely because you have a question, God must not have an answer, then your God is smaller than you are. In that case you do well to doubt; a god you can hold in your hand has nothing to offer. In that case, you will never know if there were answers for your questions inside faith, because you left faith before you started asking. But assume for a moment that you are the small one—that someone bigger might see more than you do. Assume that God has heard your questions before you ever thought of them. Assume that if you listen, if you ask, God may have answers you could never have thought up.

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Assuming these things means staying in the relationship at least for a little while. It means trusting God enough to come and be still instead of running away. If you are willing to be still, you are ready to begin making art, or begin writing about faith or truth or life, or begin living life.

There may be a reason why ecstatic praise and aching questions are major themes throughout the psalmists’ writings. Honest questioning leads to honest praise. Somehow, we humans are wired so that trust comes to us one step at a time: fear, step, feel ground, believe. Fear, step, feel ground, believe.

In art, fear is the time before you dare to bring the question to your God. Stepping is the moment when you ask, even though the possible answers scare you. Feeling ground is when you find an unexpected answer, or maybe even more, when you realize living is not only about finding all the answers. When you have feared, stepped and been held often enough that you can let a question be, knowing the answer is beyond you, but not beyond God. Sometimes an answer will come later. Sometimes not. But feeling the ground and believing, after coming to God with your fear held out, is where praise starts.

[Stephanie Gehring is a 22-year-old self-employed portrait artist, high school math tutor, and freelance writer. She spent the first sixteen years of her life in Germany and lives in Portland, Ore.]

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