Attention all Christian writers, bloggers, apologists, personalities, painters, sculptors, singers, musicians, composers, clock-makers, dress-designers, cobblers, DJs, plumbers, cooks, and chimney sweeps.
Just don't. You are so embarrassing me.
You think I'm kidding? Think again. Think about this.
"My Catholic Boy"
Still in doubt? OK, what about this:
Are we all embarrassed yet? OK; which would you rather been seen carrying out of the library, The Golden Cross . . .
. . . or The Golden Compass?
Me too. Now I know it may seem like I'm just embarrassed about my faith. Embarrassed about it? How can I be embarrassed about it when I don't even recognize it?
Well then—maybe "embarrassed about my faith" is too strong. Maybe I'm just not up to defending my faith? But if prayer and face-to-face argument with the infidels don't count as "defending my faith," then I'm not sure what does. Sure, I haven't shed my blood for the faith (yet). But I'd sooner shed my blood for it than write schlock for it. I hope.
No doubt there's an element of Pride (the unhealthy, seven-deadly-sins kind of Pride) in that sentiment; but it's not just about the Pride. It's about Fittingness. When I stand up at the Last Judgment, and God asks how I've used the artistic talent He gave me, I'd rather not have to display the literary equivalent of this:
I'm shooting for something more like this:
. . . or maybe this:
. . . or even this:
Now I don't want to offend you Precious Moments fans out there . . .
. . . but I'm pretty sure that "cute" is not the image we want to be sending to Christopher Hitchens, the Taliban and Count Grisnackhor. (Whadayya mean, "Count Who?" This guy.) It's not really representative of who we are, and we'd rather they didn't think so.
More importantly, I think we Christians deceive ourselves when we think that a work's Christian themes are enough to make it worthy of our patronage. I'm all for supporting the starving Catholic artists in your backyard, but I'd rather you supported us by feeding us the occasional dinner and helping out with the rent. Don't encourage us to write the next Narnia chronicles, because we will, and they will be terrible. There was only one C.S. Lewis, and only one Tolkien. The rest of us should find something else to do.
But even when explicitly "Christian" or "Catholic" art is done well—I'm thinking, for example, of Michael O'Brien's novels, which are not (I know) to everyone's taste, but are splendidly written nonetheless—I'm still a bit leery of it. Not because I don't like books that scream "Catholic!", but because the existence of a few such books tends to create the impression among up-and-coming writers and publishers that Catholics require a steady diet of such books. Au contraire. I think in a time when normalcy is increasingly under attack, a book that champions the NORMAL without mention of the NUMINOUS might well be even more profitable, for believers and non-believers alike, than a work that is explicitly Christian would be.
In Book 3 ("The Harp of Alfred") of Chesterton's The Ballad of the White Horse, King Alfred tells his pagan audience:
"Nor monkish order only
Slides down, as field to fen,
All things achieved and chosen pass,
As the White Horse fades in the grass,
No work of Christian men.
"Ere the sad gods that made your gods
Saw their sad sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale,
That you have left to darken and fail,
Was cut out of the grass.
"Therefore your end is on you,
Is on you and your kings,
Not for a fire in Ely fen,
Not that your gods are nine or ten,
But because it is only Christian men
Guard even heathen things.
"For our God hath blessed creation,
Calling it good. I know
What spirit with whom you blindly band
Hath blessed destruction with his hand;
Yet by God's death the stars shall stand
And the small apples grow."
King Alfred was meant to preserve everything that withered under the heathens' hedonistic rule—the "monkish orders", to be sure, but also the White Horse itself, which predates both Christianity and the new paganism of the invading Danes. The a-Christian White Horse couldn't survive without Christianity, for only the Christian God "hath blessed creation."
God has blessed creation. Not just those parts of it that speak most clearly of Him, but all of it. Not just altar lamps, but also apples. Not just the religious life, but also marriage. Not just Dante, but also Homer. Not just Owen Francis Dudley (maybe), but also Lucy Maude Montgomery (we think).
I don't think we don't need another Michael O'Brien—which is not at all to denigrate his work, which is wonderful. I don't think we don't need another Msgr. Benson (though if you haven't read his work, you should). We need another Shakespeare. We need another Jane Austen.
As long as we Christians continue to produce art because we are Christians, we will tend to produce bad art. Period. By all means, let your faith shine out in your work, be it construction or tax preparation or wax modeling. But if your shining faith manifests itself in peeling paint, IRS audits, and dripping sculptures, perhaps you'd better think less about shining and more about getting the job done. (And if you thought your job was sculpting, consider another line of work.) We should be scandalized that mere good intentions are considered a substitute for talent and effort—and even more scandalized that Christianity is supposed to demand such a consideration. If a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing badly; but don't expect other people to look at it!
Think for a moment what a world it would have been if John Donne's publisher had told him to go back home and write about God instead of about women. We would never have gotten to read . . .
Go and chase a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past things are,
Or who cleft the devil's foot;
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
And to keep off envies stinging . . .
. . . or . . .
O ! do not die, for I shall hate
All women so, when thou art gone,
That thee I shall not celebrate,
When I remember thou wast one.
. . . or . . .
Take heed of loving me ;
At least remember, I forbade it thee ;
Not that I shall repair my unthrifty waste
Of breath and blood, upon thy sighs and tears,
By being to thee then what to me thou wast ;
But so great joy our life at once outwears.
Then, lest thy love by my death frustrate be,
If thou love me, take heed of loving me.
Take heed of hating me,
Or too much triumph in the victory ;
Not that I shall be mine own officer,
And hate with hate again retaliate ;
But thou wilt lose the style of conqueror,
If I, thy conquest, perish by thy hate.
Then, lest my being nothing lessen thee,
If thou hate me, take heed of hating me.
Yet love and hate me too;
So these extremes shall ne'er their office do ;
Love me, that I may die the gentler way ;
Hate me, because thy love's too great for me ;
Or let these two, themselves, not me, decay ;
So shall I live thy stage, not triumph be.
Lest thou thy love and hate, and me undo,
O let me live, yet love and hate me too.
It's true that Donne did some splendid religious poetry later in life (the "Holy Sonnets" and "Divine Meditations", with such famous lines as "Death, be not proud" and "Batter my heart, three-personed God"). But I still think a world without "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning" would be a poorer world than ours.
This applies across the board. Imagine the results if Raphael, Bach, and Dickens had been brought up to create nothing but religious art. We'd still have dozens of lovely Madonnas, a glorious Magnificat, and The Life of Our Lord. We'd also miss out on The Triumph of Galatea, The Coffee Cantata, and David Copperfield. No thank you.
Yet this is precisely what many Christian organizations do today. Write about abortion and atheism, and you're in. Write about a chess competition or a horse breeder, and you're not—unless the powerful queen becomes a metaphor for power to queens, and the horses become signs of the impending Apocalypse.
This is ghetto mentality. If we keep this up we're doomed. I don't mind being doomed, particularly. (See the bit above about being willing to shed my blood.) But I really do mind being doomed and insipid. Or doomed and predictable. Or doomed and cheesy. The Church Triumphant deserves better than this. Because while this is certainly no angel . . .
. . . and these aren't either . . .
. . . neither is this:
I always thought they were taller . . .