I had an unexpected reaction to Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art — on the one hand I found it sort of mundane and obvious. The themes she hits didn’t strike me as all that fresh or uncommon. On the other hand, the way she goes about describing them, and the way she threads in personal history with devotional discourse and aesthetics is quite nice, and I can see some writers of faith really bonding with this book. And, on one level, it was sort of comforting to see how the mundane (but difficult) attitudes, habits and faith of L’Engle operate in such a way that she was able to produce the great work that she did. That offers some hope to us Mormon toilers.
Here’s one excerpt worth sharing — I may post more:
Stories, no matter how simple, can be vehicles of truth; can be, in fact, icons. It’s not coincidence that Jesus taught almost entirely by telling stories, simple stories dealing with the stuff of life familiar to the Jews of his day. Stories are able to help us to become more whole, to become Named. And Naming is one of the impulses behind all art; to give a name to the cosmos we see despite all the chaos.
God asked Adam to name all the animals, which was asking Adam to help in the creation of their wholeness. When we name each other, we are sharing in the joy and privilege of incarnation, and all great works of art are icons of Naming.
When we look at a painting, or hear a symphony, or read a book, and fell more Named, then, for us, that work is a work of Christian art. But to look at a work of art and then to make a judgment as to whether or not it is art, and whether or not it is Christian, is presumptuous. It is something we cannot know in any conclusive way. We can know only if it speaks within our own hearts, and leads us to living more deeply with Christ in God.
One of my professors, Dr. Caroline Gordon, a deeply Christian woman, told our class, “We do not judge great art. It judges us.” And that very judgment may enable us to change our lives, and to renew our commitment to the Lord of Creation. (32)
I am somewhat skeptical about the ability of great art to change our lives. If it happens, it happens rather imperceptibley (although so much of progress is inching forward). On the other hand, it seems to me that this notion of Naming can’t help but stir up the ambitions of a Mormon who believes that our ultimate role — both here and afterwards — is as co-creators. And, perhaps even more importantly, the focus on not knowing in “any conclusive way” and that no art holds power to inspire solely in itself and so at most we can only say (and know) “if it speaks within our own hearts” is very much in line with my own thoughts on art and inspiration.