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A Summer of Books

Someone asked me a few weeks ago if I would be reading much this summer. I was stunned at first. Finally I managed, “That’s like asking me if I am going to breathe much this summer.” I think my initial shock is probably the sign of a severe book addiction. My family would certainly agree.

My room is dominated by bookshelves. Four of them. There’s the little one that I’ve had since I was in "Bookshelf," Tom Rustebergelementary school, the heavy one with glass doors, and the two matching shelves that are six or seven feet high. There are also books on my chair, books on the floor, and books on the night table.

As of right now, I’m in the middle of It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God. It’s a fabulous book if you’re a Christian who is at all interested in the arts. It covers the biblical philosophy behind art, as well as an interview and chapters written by Christian artists. Also, it has pictures. (That is, color photographs, of artwork, in this case—unusual to find in a paperback book, especially one meant for adults.)

The book includes chapters that deal with theatre, music, and writing, but its focus is largely on the visual arts. I’m no artist, of course. Thankfully the book uses very little technical jargon. The book builds on some of the concepts outlined by Gene Edward Veith in his book State of the Arts.

As for the rest of the summer? A friend took it upon herself to get me addicted to the Les Misérables musical, so I’m hoping to read the book this summer. I need to finish The Iliad, which classes forced me to abandon. And I want to get into Dostoevsky.

Most likely, however, those books will get read very slowly. Having four bookshelves in your bedroom is wonderful. And their contents are a horrible distraction.

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Art (and Artistry)

It was wooden icon from Russia, made of three small panels of wood attached together like a science fair display board. But the painting did nothing to recall a science fair. It was a newer icon than some of the others in the display, and perhaps more beautiful, with saints I did not know painted across it. At the top was God the Father, bearded, and with the Child Christ glowing golden in his lap. Near them hovers the Spirit, a dove in a circle of blue, ringed with gold.

I went around the room, looking at icons, all Russian, and most of them medieval. A few were crude c. 1600s-1700sor badly worn.  Others were complicated, and rows of saints stood atop each other. St. Nicholas appeared with at least as much frequency as the apostles, and perhaps more. At last I came to an icon of the Christ Child with his mother. They were not beautiful. The painting was well done, but Mary, narrow-nosed, looked as though she had swallowed a pickle. She held Christ close on her lap, but she looked out with grave eyes.

My eyes were as grave as hers that day, which was earlier this spring. It had been a difficult week. As I looked at the painting, and at the small figure of Christ, something inside me changed. My eyes grew wet, and I very nearly cried, which I do not do easily. I looked at the Child Christ, and thought of the Spirit painted as a dove, wishing to carry it with me as I left.

Maybe it was the strangeness of the Russian artwork that moved me when I went to that museum. Or perhaps it was my emotions, which were not being cooperative that day. But there are pictures of Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, that if I had seen probably would not have affected me in the same way. I left the museum feeling as if I had been ministered to. The iconography on display reminded me of just how real my God is, and of how He is greater and older than any set of circumstances.

“Properly considered,” writes Gene Veith, “the arts are inestimable gifts of God.” My experience at the museum certainly attested to that. But I had visited another museum a few weeks earlier that was exhibiting more modern artwork, and I had responded far differently. Some of the paintings I enjoyed, but others were strange, and still others seemed to suggest a worldview far different from my own—a worldview in which evil is ultimately meaningless. Yet confining my appreciation of art to medieval Russian iconography is no solution to the problem.

“In every dimension of our lives,” Veith continues, “we need to be able to discern between good and evil, truth and falsehood. Art calls also for another level of discernment—between the aesthetically good and the aesthetically bad. If much of art is tasteless or idolatrous, much is excellent.” Veith goes on to do exactly that in his book State of the Arts.

I read State of the Arts shortly after finishing an art appreciation course at a Christian college that really did not teach me how to appreciate art at all. We learned some basics about art technique, and we learned art history. But I was sincerely bothered by my instructor’s seeming indifference to how worldviews themselves expressed in art.

That may have been an unfair perception. My instructor was certainly a thinking man—one who would spend hours with his brother arguing about the definition of art—and, looking back, I recognize that he wasn’t entirely indifferent to worldview. But he was an artist with a preference for modern art, and it apparently did not occur to him that the roomful of non-art majors, most from very traditional backgrounds, might benefit if he explained his reasoning. To expect us to value modern art of all kinds, without question, was asking a bit much.

For me, reading State of the Arts was one of those “ah-hah!” moments. I thought, “So this is what I missed out on in my art appreciation class.” Veith deals with art history, as my course did; but he explains the worldviews driving various trends in art. More importantly, he explains why the arts are important for Christians to appreciate, as well as laying out a basis for a Christian view of art.

Veith is not an anti-modernist. In fact, in chapter 10, he highlights a number of contemporary artists, all Christians, and all of which use a modern style. But he explains how a modern style can be used within the parameters of a Christian worldview, as well as when a modern style becomes not only not Christian, but also not art. Veith’s point is clear: art is absolutely not whatever the artist does. Art involves artistry (as do all occupations) and must be excellent in form. And, unlike my art appreciation course, Veith explains exactly what excellence in form is, and what it is not.

State of the Arts is geared toward Christians who want to appreciate art, but who may not be sure how to deal with the current fashions (and perversions) in the art world. Easily readable, but extremely thoughtful, this books is an excellent introduction to a Christian view of aesthetics. It is also the best anecdote I have come across for those of us who suffered through art appreciation courses without learning to appreciate anything.

 
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Posted by on June 1, 2012 in Nonfiction

 

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Fantasy, Realism, and Missing the Point

My first real exposure to fantasy came when I was seven years old, and my mother was trying to expand my literary horizons. I vaguely remember her reading Charlotte’s Web, The Silver Skates, and at least three of the Little House books aloud. And then, one day, she brought home The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

I really don’t understand what made her pick that particular book; I can only guess that she saw it on a list of recommended children’s books, or that someone suggested it to her. It wasn’t until years later that I learned just how little she likes fantasy novels. I read the Chronicles of Narnia and The Hobbit to my younger brother, and she repeatedly declared that I was corrupting him. (How she stood reading LWW the whole way through, I’ll never know.)

“I like realistic fiction,” she told me, in a calmer moment (that is, one in which she wasn’t accusing me of child ruination). “I don’t like stories that have nothing to do with the real world.” Dislike of fantasy, in her cases, was partly preference, and partly an upbringing that included little exposure to fantasy or fairy stories.

My mother was speaking about her personal preferences. There are those, however, who take their dislike of fantasy more seriously. Such as the academic who said any boy that disliked The Lord of the Rings lacked heart, but that if the boy remained a fan by the time he reached adult hood, he probably lacked a brain. But by responding in such a way, the academic revealed that he did not understand what fantasy is about. To call fantasy “childish” or “unrealistic” or “escapist” entirely misses the point.

All literature communicates value, but in the fantasy genre, the communication of value is absolutely vital to the story. As a result, most fantasies focus on a struggle between good and evil. Those that lose this focus–whether by muting the difference between good and evil, or by using the fantasy genre to tell a normal love story, detective story, etc.–often fail to meet the demands of the genre. Sometimes the good-vs.-evil struggle is very obvious, as in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or The Lord of the Rings. In other stories the struggle isn’t as obvious. For example, in George MacDonald’s Phantastes, for example, there is no single evil opponent. MacDonald includes villains in his writing, but none with the singular power of a Dark Lord or White Witch. The story’s central conflict occurs within Anodos himself: “Thus I, who set out to find my Ideal, came back rejoicing that I had lost my shadow.”

In his book Reading Between the Lines, Gene Edward Veith writes of fantasy’s moral focus, “Such momentous truths are in the realm of the unseen, but fantasy can express them in symbolic form.” He goes on to note that fantasy’s “spiritual orientation” can be abused, but that it has resulted in many great works of fantasy embodying Christian truth, with most of the groundbreaking stories in that genre being written by Christians. By bringing readers outside of our world, fantasy writers have more room to communicate value symbolically, something that presents more challenges for writers of realistic fiction. That does not mean that fantasy is allegory–it usually isn’t–but rather that it has an otherworldly focus.

As a result of its otherworldly focus, fantasy by nature stands in opposition to materialism. Materialist attempts at fantasy do exist, but most fantasy does not fall into that category. At the same time, fantasy can help us better appreciate the material world in that it encourages a sense of wonder toward the natural world–something not easily learned from a science textbook, however “practical.”

Perhaps it’s time that we redefine “practicality.” If a book helps us to focus in a wholesome way on the eminently real spiritual world, and inspires a sense of wonder toward the physical world, its results are far from impractical. Rather, fantasy develops aspects of the human personality that a diet of strictly realistic fiction may leave undernourished.

C. S. Lewis once described a woman who struggled with this very sort of undernourishment:

A lady (and, what makes the story more piquant, she herself was a Jungian psychologist) had been talking about a dreariness which seemed to be creeping over her life, the drying up in her of the power to feel pleasure, the aridity of her mental landscape. Drawing a bow at a venture, I asked, “Have you any taste for fantasies and fairy tales?” I shall never forget how her muscles tightened, her hands clenched themselves, her eyes started as if in horror, and her voice changed, as she hissed out, “I loathe them.”

I don’t expect people who, like my mother and the psychologist with whom Lewis spoke, to read this post and immediately develop a love for fantasy. But I suggest that we reject the accusation that fantasy is unrealistic. Of course it is unrealistic in that it doesn’t deal with the earth as we know it. That is precisely the point. There are certain things that strict realism will find more difficult to accomplish, and these are the very things at which fantasy excels.

 
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Posted by on May 21, 2012 in Fantasy

 

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