You are currently viewing Why ‘Lone’ Artists Need the Church

Why ‘Lone’ Artists Need the Church

When Virginia Woolf delivered a series of lectures at Cambridge in 1928—lectures later published as A Room of One’s Own—her subject was women and fiction. “A woman,” she argued, “must have money and a room of her own if she is to write.” Women needed at least 500 pounds a year to permit them experience beyond the confines of cramped domestic life. They also needed space more private than Jane Austen’s sitting room, where she wrote most of her novels.

Woolf’s vision, particularly on this second point, still captures the cultural imagination today. It’s the artist as lone, as lonely, as lonesome. According to Woolf (and her many ideological heirs and successors), we write and paint, compose and illustrate insofar as we’re permitted to inhabit long, deep, sustained silences. Solitude is the condition for creativity. If the muse pays a visit, she’d better find us hunched over a desk, “recalling the real world” as Annie Dillard puts it.

“Let me make,” today’s artist is tempted to say. “If I am to achieve artistic brilliance, I must be left alone.”

What role, then, can the church community play in the artist’s life? Why should the artist move toward people and small talk, the church’s Sunday morning commitments, its weekly small groups, its chronic pleas for volunteers?

Biblical Vision for Communal Making

I read Woolf for the first time as a college undergrad and was mostly persuaded by her argument. It’s why I imagined, for too many years, a constant warring between my life as a wife and mother and my life as a writer. In truth, I was ill-formed in my Christian imagination. I needed to be restoried by the Bible, to be captured by the Trinitarian vision for communal making as it’s figured in Genesis 1.

There, when the curtain opens on the drama of creation and heaven and earth take shape, Father, Son, and Spirit together call a world into being: “Let us make” (v. 26). According to Genesis’s poetic rendering of God’s creative acts, stars and sea horses, biomes and beasts are birthed from the loving circle of God’s eternally communal being. From the beginning, making was no solitary act.

I needed to be restoried by the Bible, to be captured by the Trinitarian vision for communal making.

Throughout the Bible, the human act of making is patterned after God’s collaborative work. When God commands the Israelites to make the tabernacle—the elaborate and portable worship structure carried with them for 40 years in the wilderness—they execute the work under the artistic leadership of Bezalel and Oholiab (Ex. 35:30–37:7). These two shepherd the efforts of artisans of all kinds. As the work concludes in Exodus 40, the narrative signals this national enterprise has imitated God’s making of the world. God’s glory settles on this new house, and it’s decreed good.

The Psalms might well be another example of communal making, if less obvious to us. According to one rabbinic tradition (noted by Robert Alter), the Psalter was collected and ordered by a communion of saints. I imagine the Psalms’ editorial process, undertaken long ago, resembled the years of animated late nights I spent with a team of church volunteers producing a magazine called Imprint. The articles we compiled weren’t inspired by the Holy Spirit, of course, but our work to arrange and produce that periodical was collaborative and communal, and it imaged forth God-like creativity.

If artists forget these examples (and many more like them), we’re left vulnerable to Woolf’s powers of persuasion. We might be tempted to reject God’s good idea of community, failing to see that our participation in church life is meant to enhance our creative endeavors, not threaten them.

Genius of Creative Communities

“It has been said [by C. S. Lewis] that the joys of Heaven would be for most of us, in our present condition, an acquired taste,” wrote Dorothy Sayers in her introduction to the third canticle of Dante’s Divine Comedy. “In a sense,” Sayers continued, “Dante’s Paradise is a story about the acquisition of that taste.” By quoting Lewis in the opening line of her introduction, Sayers reminds readers of the extraordinary literary community formed by devout Christians in Oxford in the wake of the Great War.

In Lewis’s smoky rooms at Magdalen College, members of the Inklings—J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and others—read aloud drafts of works Christians have come to treasure: The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The men offered encouragement when words dried up; they provided critical feedback for revision. They spent 17 years in each other’s company, and though Lewis was heard saying, “No one ever influenced Tolkien—you might as well try to influence a Bandersnatch,” Diana Pavlac Glyer suggests “common sense” says otherwise.

Glyer has studied other writing groups, including the Bloomsbury Group to which Woolf belonged, and has concluded decidedly in favor of a Christian vision of communal making: “I was struck by how often the members gratefully acknowledged the help they received and how readily scholars took influence for granted.” Though we may claim a “lone artist” vision in principle, in practice we’re drawn to our great need for each other.

In historical terms, the lone artist is a recent invention. As Glyer explains, before the Renaissance, “genius” was considered a quality to possess rather than an identity to claim. You couldn’t be a genius; you could only have genius. Moreover, before the Enlightenment, the test of literary “genius” wasn’t originality in the way Woolf posits it. Instead, it was assumed writers participated in larger historical conversations. Ben Jonson, cited by Harold Bloom, describes this as converting “the subject or riches of another poet to his own use.” Art was an act of imitation before it was an act of invention.

Lewis took issue with the word “originality” in his essay “Christianity and Literature.” He wrote, “A [Christian] author should never conceive himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom.”

Christian writers admit the limits of their imaginative capacities and confess their work is derivative. The effect on making then shifts. As soon as “originality” is removed as the proof text of good art, Christians are free to collaborate. They can recover an older, saner, more sensible vision of genius, even the one captured by Dante.

Dante’s Communitarian Vision

The Divine Comedy is a masterful work of carefully constructed poetry; its artistic structure, designed around the number three, celebrates God’s Trinitarian being. The epic poem is composed of three volumes, or canticles; each canticle is made up of 33 cantos, or chapters—and each canto is composed in stanzas of three called “tercets.” The poem, in its very composition, cries out, “Let us make!”

As soon as ‘originality’ is removed as the proof text of good art, Christians are free to collaborate.

Dante the Pilgrim’s journey also illumines a communitarian vision in both artistic and spiritual life. Though at first glance, this may look like a lone pilgrim’s movement toward salvation (and has been read this way mistakenly, with the epic poem reduced to modern therapeutic advice), this reading fails to see the pilgrim’s need for help along the way. Dante can’t travel apart from faithful guides. He must rely on others to remove the stain of his sin. Forgiveness is only found through confession, contrition, and Christ’s satisfying work on the cross.

In Dante’s vision of three spheres, hell is the most solitary, and sin’s deforming effects are there grotesquely visited on human personhood and relationships. Throughout his journey, Dante’s capital vices of envy, greed, sloth, and pride are cleansed and renounced, and he’s taught the ways of divine love until, in Paradise, he finally achieves the beatific vision, meeting God face-to-face. Dante the Pilgrim experiences God’s love, which has the power to make us new, and Dante the Poet is called to bear faithful witness to this love.

As Sayers reminds readers in the introduction to her translation of Paradiso, the epic poem, though deeply theological, never attempts to outline a didactic argument about sin’s penalty or Christ’s atoning work on the cross. Rather, through imagery and narrative arc, it relies on whetting the appetite for God, holiness, and salvation’s repair of sin. The book doesn’t attempt an analysis, but its poetry effects one’s longings. Its mode, maybe even its mood, isn’t that of a three-point exegetical sermon. And in this way, it speaks of the gifts artists can offer to the church.

Virtue in Telling the Truth Slant

By God’s grace, I’ve spent most Sundays of my life in church pews. Weekly worship (and participation in the broader life of the local church) is a habit that regularly sustains my faith. Moreover, my public writing—in the form of Christian books and articles like these—was birthed from a writing community I found through my local church. It was a community created because my pastor had a vision for writing as vocation.

That community was a gift, but it’s often not what most artists receive in their experiences of church. Instead, we’re tempted to feel an inherent tension between preachers and poets, perhaps even to doubt our spiritual fitness.

I’ve inhabited this tension for years. Two and a half years ago, I finally decided on a graduate degree in fine arts, though I could as easily have chosen theology or biblical studies. Some have asked (and I’ve often asked myself), Would I have been better off mastering a passable knowledge of Greek, rather than learning the craft of an essay?

After two and a half years of MFA reading and writing, I can at least say this: I better understand the tension between artist and church, between the suggestive qualities of artistic work and the declarative qualities of theological argument. If the role of the pastor is to oversee the church’s spiritual health, to protect the sheep from wolves, and to declare the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:26–35), the role of the poet (and artist) is different. As Kimberly Johnson explains, the poet’s business isn’t proclaiming the truth but “figuring things out.”

Many have identified the “fundamental enmity between art and truth,” Johnson writes. She cites George Herbert’s poem “Jordan,” which (ironically) casts suspicion on the “embroidery” of poetic verse. The question many earnest truth seekers would ask is this: Why tell the truth slant when it could be set forth plainly?

One answer is that the Bible itself affirms that art and argument both have their place. Who can’t help but fall into Job and marvel that God has given us a book that figures, at its center, a human beset by terrible suffering and warring with the certainties of his friends, the certainties of his believing community? “How long will you cause me grief?” Job asks of these friends. “Look, I scream, ‘Outrage!’ and I am not answered” (Job 19:2, 7, Alter’s translation).

As an artist, I’m eager to worship the God who gave us more than Job 13 and 38–42—and more than theological argument. Those chapters are likely easier to exegete, but how generous and gracious of God that for the bulk of this book, space is made for poetic tirade as Job feels his way for God in the great dark of his soul. Perhaps art is better suited than argument in tragedy, when comfort is more necessary than explanation.

Perhaps art is better suited than argument in tragedy, when comfort is more necessary than explanation.

There are, of course, dangers inherent to the exploration necessary for artistic making and the artist’s preference for “slant” truth. Some artists transgress the bounds of orthodoxy, radically prizing their intuitions above God’s self-revelation. And yet I don’t think the Bible, seriously read, lets us get there, even as we absorb its poetry.

In the end, Job gets an answer—and Job’s friends get their rebuke. It’s almost enough for me, though I still wonder what repair can be made of all those dead children, the seeming threat that God might give us up into the hands of our enemies. But that’s my artist’s mind at work—and I imagine it will be welcomed when I meet the One whose thoughts are not my thoughts, whose ways are not my ways.

Artists Made to Worship

When Dante the Pilgrim met God in the final canto of Paradiso, he understood that his powers of speech would never match the exaltation of the divine vision:

O Light exalted beyond mortal thought,
Grant that in memory I see again
But one small part of how you then appeared

And grant my tongue sufficient power
That it may leave beyond a single spark
Of glory for the people yet to come. (XXXIII, II. 67–72)

According to Dante, the work of the artist is—first and foremost—to faithfully gaze. We don’t make until we see. We must behold the One who has loved us, “becoming more enraptured” (I. 99). All Christian poetry—indeed, all Christian art—begins here: in the long looking to Christ that is worship.

This would suggest a final reason the lone artist needs the church. It’s not just to be restoried in a vision of communal making but to inhabit, week after week, the deliberate and sacred pause of a long-looking liturgy. The church calls artists away from our busy (and too often solitary) lives to gaze on the beautiful, broken One who—(according to the great hymn of the early church)—did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped but made himself nothing (Phil. 2:6–7). This same Jesus sends us back into the world, to the office and the kitchen, to the classroom and canvas and page, to make more of the world he’s made and sustained, loved, and redeemed.

But we aren’t sent until we’re first gathered. When the artist is gathered and enfolded into the life of the church, his making is reordered, his vision sanctified. He gains a vision for making that the world cannot offer to him, insisting as it does on his lone status.

Let the artist in the church say, “Let us make.”

Then together, let us see what is yet to be made.


Leave a Reply