S ome dismiss art as narcissistic, or at best indulgent and superfluous to the life of faith. And maybe there is some sense of self in art, because it starts with an expression of that which is intimate and personal. Yet art is also intensely sacrificial. An artist will perhaps tell you it’s not the fulfillment of self that leads to great art, but the loss of self, and the ability to capture an image of that loss.
Christian artist Makoto Fujimura tells us the Japanese ideogram for beauty is associated with death and sorrow.
In order to enjoy the feast at the banquet, a sheep must be sacrificed. Autumn leaves are most beautiful and bright as they are distressed with their impending death. – Makoto Fujimura, Refractions
Beauty is sacrifice.
In this way beauty, and here I interchange art and beauty because art is the currency of beauty, perhaps gets us closest to the understanding that to follow Jesus is to gain life by first losing life.
In his memoir My Losing Season, Pat Conroy notes that it is in the losing, not the winning, that we find art.
Why must it be so, grasshopper?
Contemporary society is obsessed with mitigating risk.
For the ease with which our affair with social media facilitates a focus on self, consider this negative commentary on the new Facebook home ads, by Wired magazine, no less. We want insurance; we want assurance, for our goods and for our souls.
It is no coincidence that many dystopian views of a technbological future, from 1984 to The Matrix to Wall-E, paint an image of people inoculated from suffering – and also from life.
The thing is, there is no safety or security from hardship.
This life is a life of loss and suffering. As Jesus says, in this world we will have trouble. Beauty reminds us what is real, not what is mediated.
Story itself wouldn’t exist without conflict and loss. Writers share the knowledge that to write great stories, you must make your characters suffer. As Don Miller recounts Robert McKee in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years,
You put your character through hell. That’s the only way we change.
It is the very suffering that brings us life.
When we experience loss, viscerally, actually, through our own story and through the stories of others, we engage in the fellowship of the saints, in the community of suffering known as the human race.
Art, like the life of discipleship, is the gain of loss. We don’t find meaning in the fulfillment of self, but in sacrifice. We lose our life to find it. Such sobering associations are profoundly counter-cultural in an ever increasing Randian world of self propagation. When we have Christ, and the power of his resurrection, we participate in something much greater than self actualization. In our suffering we know his suffering, and we learn to die to self. We become changed by the one who has overcome the world. We cannot know resurrection without death. We must die to truly live.
We don’t find life by running from sin and evil and the effects of a world of destructive choices. We find life by running to the cross.
Every time we feel a story deeply, we resonate through a beautiful window that Truth and Goodness do not offer. These other virtues are good, and necessary, but beauty provides us with a glimpse of knowing, of divine wisdom at God’s design for the redemption of all of our collective suffering. Every time we let go of a rebellious teenage child, we say goodbye to a dear friend, or we leave the safety of a hometown or a comfortable life, we die to a part of ourselves, and in so doing we gain a wider opening to the portal of Christ’s agape love.
This is why art is important in the life of faith.