Thursday, June 24, 2010

When Wrong Art is Right

One bite into
a ripe fig
is worth worlds
and worlds and worlds
beyond the green
of Eden.

                    - from “Figs”, Erica Jong, from Love Comes First, 2009

What is it about art which supersedes theology? This is the coda of Erica Jong’s poem, which postulates that it was indeed a fig which was offered by Lucifer and taken by Adam and Eve. The last line bugged me, but I understood it. The entire poem is a thing of beauty, rolling into the consciousness with the persistent velvet rhythm of a heartbeat. I can taste the flesh of the fruit in the cool of the day. But here, the last line. I disagree. Wholeheartedly do I disagree, and I can hear a hundred preachers duly shaking their heads and restating that No, it is not worth it. I hear Satan offering Jesus “all of this… for I can give it to whomever I choose,” and Jesus’ reverberating dismissal of the devil.

Somehow, though, the line itself, and many lines of many poems and songs besides, ring true. I can say that it is merely touting the virtues of the taste of a ripe fig and therefore is true though its hyperbolic language, but dissecting a poem feels coldly logical. Also, it discounts the poem as a whole. So what is it that allows me to nod knowingly to this work as it is read in verse while at the same time fervently refuting if it descends from the pulpit? I believe the answer to be Honesty.

The reason that art resonates with us, that theatre beguiles us and paintings make us cry and music soothes savage beasts, is that it is honest. First and foremost among artists of all media is the knowledge that if your work does not speak of that which wells up within you, then it will be of little value to those who hear or see it. A photographer takes photos to show people beauty or horror where she sees them so that others may see also. A songwriter pens lyrics that reveal his human condition so that, when he plays, our human condition will not make us feel so alone. A painter unearths what he sees in the subjects so that we will not miss it.

And many times, it is all wrong. It does not line up with the five points of Calvinism or the Nicene Creed or the Westminster Catechism. We nod in assent though, and occasionally try to sequester it off as a part of our lives which does not belong in Church or polite company. I can’t help but recall though, that the One who gave notice of his perfection by giving the Law, also weeps and laughs and rages and smiles and creates. Theology and art are inseparable as the Godhead is inseparable. Theology, at its highest, leans toward the beautiful ineffability of art. So art, at its highest, speaks great theology. All that is required for theology to be worthwhile is that it be True. What is required for art is that it be Honest. John Wesley and Johnny Cash are not as far apart as we might wish to believe.

This is not an excuse for us to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Part of being honest is telling the truth about how you feel. Another part is telling the truth. How you feel is worth something though. When I hear this poem, I can taste the flesh of the fig, and in that moment, I know God has touched the fruit itself and smiles that I enjoy it.


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