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Christian Art and the Subversion of Death, Part 1

This is Part One of a two-part series on some of the issues surrounding the question of what makes art Christian. The question is a complicated one, as I’ve learned through both drawing up the Art and Catholicism course I teach to high school seniors and trying to offer helpful answers to some of the questions that arise during the semester. In the first part I’ll begin with some reflections on one of the authors we read in the course, Flannery O’Connor. In the second part I’ll discuss the subversion of suffering and death in Psalm 22, poetry by Denise Levertov and Gerard Manley Hopkins, and a music video by Johnny Cash, in the hope of illustrating how Christian hope transforms our perspective on what Levertov calls the “looming presences” of “great suffering, great fear.” 

What makes art “Christian”? There are a number of suggested answers, the most popular of which focus on a work’s explicit religious content (it features something identifiably Christian), the faith convictions of the artist (he or she is a Christian), or the effect the work has on a viewer (it leads one to prayer or devotion). Some make the distinction between sacred art, which is any work of art clearly intended for use in a worship setting, and Christian or even religious art, which are both a bit more amorphous. Others suggest the category of Christian art is one we should retire altogether, as it often reduces art and its enjoyment to overly pious ideas which confuse rather than clarify. “Why not think in terms of good and bad art, instead?” suggests Maureen Mullarkey, in a valuable essay on the topic which illustrates how limiting the conversation about Christian art can be. Flannery O’Connor likewise struggled with the narrowness of the term, and in her essays struggled to explain exactly what she as a Catholic writer was up to. The conversation is made all the more murky by the reduction of “art” to the “fine arts,” a topic of some importance for Christians seeking to do all things to the glory of God. A helpful discussion of this can be found in Frank Burch Brown’s Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste: Aestehetics in Religious Life, and in the works of Jacques Maritain on art, namely Art and Scholasticism and The Responsibility of the Artist. In this post I want to suggest an avenue of inquiry which allows us to use the term Christian art in a manner which is precise yet also allows for an expansiveness that avoids the often moralistic and doctrinaire terms imposed on the creative process. I’ll begin with Flannery O’Connor’s reflections on art and illustrate them by commenting on one of her stories, and, in a second post, consider her ideas in light of the twenty-second Psalm, poetry by Denise Levertov and Gerard Manley Hopkins, and a video by Johnny Cash.

In her essay “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers,” O’Connor suggested the following:

The novelist is required to create the illusion of a whole world with believable people in it, and the chief difference between the novelist who is an orthodox Christian and the novelist who is merely a naturalist is that the Christian novelist lives in a larger universe. He believes that the natural world contains the supernatural. And this doesn't mean that his obligation to portray the natural is less; it means it is greater.

“The natural world contains the supernatural”: A corollary of this is the idea that art is sacramental, that it makes spiritual realities manifest through physical material, whether paint, sound, words, etc. We see through the ordinary, the every day; this doesn’t mean we ignore it to ascend to the spiritual, for, as O’Connor notes and exemplifies in her own fiction, the Christian artist has an obligation to portray the ordinary as faithfully as possible. But because Christians know that even the most ordinary of realities is shot through with mystery, they will refuse to take at face value what they see with their eyes. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” Hamlet says, echoing the Christian’s response to O’Connor’s naturalist. The Christian artist thus has the responsibility of doing justice to the things and people we encounter, as well as the obligation to lead us through these things to deeper spiritual realities, however explicitly or suggestively the artist chooses or is able to portray them (cf. this earlier post from Denys Powlett-Jones, which deals with material from the same essay by O'Connor.)

For one example of this, we can look at O’Connor’s most popular story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” In it we meet the Misfit, an escaped convict who kills without remorse yet also suffers from the modern uncertainties about whether there is a source of goodness that transcends human construction. He understands the implications of Christ, that, whether or not he raised the dead or rose himself, he matters. Atheism is not simply a free pass to sleep in on Sundays or no longer feel guilty about fornication, but a matter of dread seriousness. In his recent Chesterton: The Nightmare Goodness of God, Ralph Wood, whose earlier study of O’Connor remains one of the best overviews of her work, says this about the options before us (you can add O’Connor’s name to Chesterton’s):

Chesterton remained convinced that nihilism is the most serious challenge to modern life in general and to Christianity in particular. If there is no triune and creator God, no authentic Israel or Christ or the Church, if the universe is fundamentally unsponsored and undirected, then life is indeed a house of mirrors, a world of continuing but meaningless flux, a phantasmagoria of masks and ghosts and nightmares. Indeed, the world is but a brutal arena where the strong slaughter the weak, whether physically or spiritually. As Ivan Karamazov declares, “If God is dead, all things are permitted,” there being no transcendent measure by which anything can be called either good or evil.

The Misfit knows this, and suffers from that knowledge. He has killed in the past, and kills in the story, by himself and through the hands of his two associates. Together they murder an entire family, including a baby. This is a gruesome story, and O’Connor had readers who complained about its darkness, just as there are Christians today who struggle with violence and death in films and literature. Can a Christian artist write stories like this? Can stories that end in senseless murder with no imminent justice being served be considered “Christian”? As Sally Fitzgerald, O’Connor’s friend and editor, wrote, this depends on what we think of by the phrase “happy ending.”

When the grandmother in the story is desperately trying to persuade the Misfit not to kill her, she appeals to his goodness and gentility, and then exhorts him to pray to Jesus. He rejects this appeal, the says that Jesus “was the only One that ever raised the dead. . ., and He shouldn’t have done it. He thown (sic) everything off balance.” Then he rehearses our options in the age of nihilism:

If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,” he said and his voice had become almost a snarl.

After a weak attempt by the grandmother to suggest that maybe Christ didn’t raise the dead, the Misfit says “I wasn’t there so I can’t say He didn’t.” Then comes the moment of revelation and redemption for the grandmother, as the Misfit reveals in the following words the pain and vulnerability the grandmother now recognizes as binding them together, leading her to reach out to him, literally and figuratively:

"I wasn't there so I can't say He didn't," The Misfit said. "I wisht I had of been there," he said, hitting the ground with his fist. "It ain't right I wasn't there because if I had of been there I would of known. Listen lady," he said in a high voice, "if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn't be like I am now." His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother's head cleared for an instant. She saw the man's face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!" She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them.

After a brief exchange with one of his partners, the Misfit ends the story with the following admission: "Shut up, Bobby Lee," The Misfit said. "It's no real pleasure in life."

My students, like many other readers, struggle to see how a story that ends this way can be considered a Christian story written by someone deeply committed to not only the Catholic faith but to showing a “larger universe” than that of a naturalist. “What happy ending?” some ask. “A brutal, depressing story” others say. Yet O’Connor, in commenting on the story, wrote of her hope that the grandmother’s gesture, “like the mustard seed, will grow to be like a great crow-filled tree in the Misfit’s heart, and will be enough of a pain to him there to turn him into the prophet he was meant to become.” For she knew something of the dramatic, transformative nature of grace, and that those who, like the Misfit, were “Christ-haunted” would always remain within its reach, regardless of what they had done. She rejected with prejudice the moralism so common to both the forms of Protestantism that surrounded her and formed her characters and the Catholicism that should have known better, a moralism that focuses on present misdeeds and ignores the often uncomfortable truths about mustard seeds and prodigal sons. While it would be easier, and for some a clearer sign of a properly Christian story, to portray characters like the Misfit gaining wisdom from his deeds and falling at the foot of the cross, or at least being demolished by the justice that proclaims “Thou shalt not kill,” O’Connor knew that the world is filled with people on the margins of grace. Some will succumb to it, others will reject it. The Christian artist, whose obligation is to “the truth of what can happen in life, and not to the reader—not to the reader’s taste, not to the reader’s happiness, not even to the reader’s morals,” will try to portray these people as they are, not as we would like them to be.

At the same time, however, that Christian artist will see through the particular moment, the circumstance, the actions taken by the character, to what might be sub specie aeternitatis. Addressing the phrase “Catholic novel,” O’Connor wrote:

The very term "Catholic novel" is, of course, suspect, and people who are conscious of its complications don't use it except in quotation marks. If I had to say what a "Catholic novel" is, I could only say that it is one that represents reality adequately as we see it manifested in this world of things and human relationships. Only in and by these sense experiences does the fiction writer approach a contemplative knowledge of the mystery they embody.

If this is true, then the scope allowed the Catholic artist is larger than many of the faithful will be comfortable with, for the mysteries embodied within our sense experiences are as vast as those experiences themselves. The artist is, therefore, just as free to show the slaughter of a family as the conversion of a lost soul, the bravery of the martyr, or the courage of the saint, though many Catholics will likely prefer the dramatization of these latter examples, even if poorly executed artistically, than the former, even if done brilliantly. What is important is not just the subject matter, but the perspective in which the subject matter is seen. The Christian will see hope and possibility, even for a character like the Misfit. A true happy ending, in the Christian sense, is not limited to the present. “Happily ever after” points in another direction.

O’Connor comments about her freedom as Catholic author:

The Church we see, even the universal Church, is a small segment of the whole of creation. If many are called and few are chosen, fewer still perhaps choose, even unconsciously, to be Christian, and yet all of reality is the potential kingdom of Christ, and the face of the earth is waiting to be recreated by his spirit. This all means that what we roughly call the Catholic novel is not necessarily about a Christianized or Catholicized world, but simply that it is one in which the truth as Christians know it has been used as a light to see the world by. This may or may not be a Catholic world, and it may or may not have been seen by a Catholic.

The “light we see the world by” is Christ and the hope he provides. Not optimism in a worldly sense, but the theological virtue of hope, and there is a world of difference between those two. Those who conflate the two will read the darkness in O’Connor’s stories in the same way they read the contemporary political scene, horizontally, not vertically, and will likely forget that our Church is the not just the Church of Christendom, but of the Martyrs, as well. Their fear of what is happening and what might yet happen will be palpable. But darkness, despair, suffering, and death are part of our reality, even if we try to shield ourselves from them, and Christians above all, if they take seriously their obligation to be truthful to reality “as we see it manifested in this world of things and human relationships,” will neither avoid nor cower in fear of them. Instead, it can be argued that the most convincing Christian art today is precisely that which deals openly with darkness and death, and shows convincingly how, as O’Connor states, the universe we know in Christ is “larger” than the one known by those who don’t share our hope. In Part Two of this post I will argue precisely this, looking at testimonials of hope in the midst of great fear and suffering by the Psalmist and a trio of Christian artists.