L’Engle on icons of Naming

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.

8 thoughts on “L’Engle on icons of Naming”

  1. Walking on Water is one of my favorite non-fiction books. Perhaps my love for its author has blinded me to its mundanity.

    I feel that great art has changed my life in many ways.

  2. A thought that I’ve been working with recently is the potential of (certain types of) pretending as a sort of second-order attempt at innocence. I think this ties in with L’Engle’s Naming, or the creation of narrative—by re-interpreting our past, or acting as if we had certain motivations, how do we bring those motivations into being?

    By acting as if great art or literature can change our life—by feeling more Named thereby, as it were—how do we effect that change?

    William, you may be skeptical about the ability of these things to change our lives dramatically, but if we expect a change to occur, does it not often happen?

  3. Luisa:

    I think a lot of my reaction has to do with expectations. Certainly, it does very well what it’s trying to do, and we would all benefit from following many of the habits and taking on the attitudes L’Engle outlines. This is going to sound a little weird and perhaps even patronizing, but for me Walking on Water was like a really, really well-written conference talk — I didn’t learn anything new, per se, but it sure was a good reminder of the things I’m supposed to be doing, and as a reminder, it expressed itself very well.


    I think that’s exactly right — and that’s really what L’Engle is saying here — when we have the attitude that great art can change is then it’s more likely to be able to effectuate that change. I think the same is true with any encounter with something that seeks to inspire and convince. And I don’t think that there’s anything essentially wrong with that, especially when the art and the reception of the art is couched in the Christian principles that L’Engle discusses.

    On the other hand, let’s not lose sight of the fact that basic good living habits and acts of kindness and service create as much if not more change in people as art.

  4. Well, the book was published almost 30 years ago, so perhaps you’ve been introduced to the precepts multiple times and are only now reading the source [or one of the many sources].

    I think great art can model for us how to live our lives (narrative art especially). And this can help us see how we might want to change.

    And great art can reassure us of who we are. There were many years when I walked the few blocks to Houston’s Cy Twombly Gallery for peace and introspection and sat in front of his “Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor.” A lot closer than the hour long drive to the temple, more physically engaging than scripture study, and often an answer to prayer.

  5. Or perhaps it’s L’Engle’s devotional approach to aesthetics and writing. Which is not at all a bad thing — particularly for Mormon artists.

  6. I love Madeleine L’Engle. It was a sad day when she passed away.

    I think her observations about art changing us is spot-on. Perhaps the reason art affects only subtly is because we no longer grant art the time required to understand and ponder. Art is not just a pretty picture, it is a chance to glimpse the world through another’s eyes. If we explore that opportunity, how could it not change us?

  7. Visual art and music are languages, and the Spirit can communicate through any language. We understand more as our fluency increases, I find.

    Wm., that doesn’t sound patronizing at all. In fact, that’s one of the highest compliments you could give the book, in my opinion.

  8. I think that it also suggests the need for similar works in Mormon culture. Certainly Eugene England’s work and Marden J. Clark’s “Liberating Form” accomplish similar things. But what is great about L’Engle’s approach is that she steeps it so much in the Christian concerns and discourse that were part of her life and ties the personal, artistic creation and Christianity very nicely together.

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