I ordered Brian Godawa’s book, Word Pictures: Knowing God Through Story and Imagination, on my Kindle last year while overseas. It’s good for a number of reasons, including who the author is. Godawa is a screenwriter, designer, author, and a Christian. He wrote the screenplay for a feature film called To End All Wars. His book starts off with a history of how he approached Christianity, and life, intellectually and rationally. That gives him a lot of credibility as he then shows his journey towards appreciated image and imagination, and discusses it over several chapters.
Among his first thoughts: Every part of man is affected by sin, this includes both imagination and reason. At the same time, while peoples’ rational minds are fallen, the “Bible uses reason and logic all over the place.” He then expounds on the value of reason to know God, since God does talk about himself uses propositional reason. While admitting that he was too focused on reason, he doesn’t then focus too much on imagination. They are both important, and both necessary.
He gives a brief history of modernity and it’s effect on Biblical interpretation. He also gives a number of Biblical examples of figurative language and of the arts. I may highlight some of these in future posts. Here’s some of his thoughts on literalism:
In my fear of becoming “liberal,” and in my overemphasis on the rational, I discovered that I had been interpreting the Bible in a way that is was not intended to be interpreted. Literalism has become a code word for reducing Biblical language to raw physical description or rational timeless truths, rather than allowing the imaginative poetic language of a Jew situated within the ancient Middle East. Yes, there is much in the Bible that is historical realism, much that is literally true, but it is mixed in with so much imagery, hyperbole and symbol that I simply can no longer claim to read the Bible literally. Instead, Iv’e come to read the Book “literarily.”
I highly recommend the book if you have any interest in imagination’s place in the Christian life.
Makoto Fujimura gave the commencement address at my alma mater, Messiah College, this year. Here began with the following story:
A girl in northern Iraq ran toward a bunker with her father. A Japanese photographer was capturing this unfolding drama on the front lines of the war, and he followed the girl with his camera until she was safely behind the bunker. But as he put his camera down, he noticed a look of horror on her face.
She realized that as she was running away from the bullets, she had stepped on a flower.
Before anyone could say or do anything to stop her, she let go of her father’s hand, and she ran back to the flower, knelt down, and she tried, in vain, to restore the flower by holding it up in her little hands.
As she tried to resurrect beauty, a cruel stray bullet pieced her body.
She fell, crumpling on top of the flower.
He goes on to ask the question: Would we give our lives for beauty?
If the story and question piqued your interest at all, I suggest reading the whole commencement address, as I don’t feel I can really summarize it.
The initial story made me pause, then I read it again, and again. It’s sad, but there’s something beautiful about the idea of trying to restore a flower, and it’s poetic to die trying, though there’s no rational way the tradeoff is worth it. But, as Fujimura says, there is something genuine in pursuing beauty in a world of violence and discord. He says so much more though.
“This girl, by turning back toward the path of danger, rather than running into safety, graduated. She graduated from the horror-stricken world full of bullet holes. She graduated toward beauty and sacrifice.”
“Thus, through the bullet holes, through the wounds of our ‘Ground Zero’ conditions, God chooses to shine his light. The wounds represents not just our Fallen conditions, but the possibility toward the Generative.”
It’s the questions that make me think. Will beauty save the world? Would I give my life for beauty? God created the world and said it was good, a word that in other verses is translated as beautiful. God died for his fallen created people and restored them, but died in the process (then rose in glory).
I wouldn’t have valued a fallen flower. I was raised in a land of rain, not desert. I doubt I’d even notice. Sometimes I notice things, many times I don’t, and I don’t know what I’d think if bullets were shot at me. I recognize what I think is beautiful, but there is much I miss. There is so much beauty I don’t take the time to see, so much beauty I don’t know is beautiful. It was an Amish man in the city by the name of Freeman Miller who once told a class I was in that he came to love cities because they were full of God’s most beautiful creation: people.
I’m not sure what Dostoevsky meant by "Beauty will save the world." But I really like that he said it.
My small group has been going through the Confessions of St. Augustine the last few months. We continued tonight. I really appreciate Augustine’s honesty, both about his questions in life and about his failures, all the more coming from a bishop.
While there are differences in culture and time, it’s amazing how many theological and life questions read the same. Some passages I’ve read are not much different than what I might read, or write, on a blog.
I’ve read lots of Christian books by modern writers over the years, but there’s something special about connecting with words from over 1600 years ago.
Poorly written novels—no matter how pious and edifying the behavior of the characters—are not good in themselves and are therefore not really edifying. Now a statement like this creates problems. An individual may be highly edified by a sorry novel because he doesn’t know any better. We have plenty of examples in this world of poor things being used for good purposes. God can make any indifferent thing, as well as evil itself, an instrument for good; but I submit that to do this is the business of God and not of any human being. (O’Connor, 174)
In context, in this essay from Mystery and Manners, O’Connor is talking about Catholic writers and what they choose to write about and how they choose to portray reality. She makes the point that portraying real people accurately may mean writing about behavior that is non-edifying. She then questions how some well-meaning Catholic writers may write unbelievable stories for a given agenda, and thus try to reflect God with untruth. She then makes the statement above.
There are a lot of ideas that could be unpacked from that. She alludes to standards of literature and what makes a good novel in her statement about a person ‘not knowing any better’ than to like a sorry novel. There are concepts of conveying truth in fiction and of being believable that writers and literature types talk about. The idea I want to focus on has to do with grace.
Having gone to a Christian liberal arts college, I’ve been a part of lots of discussions about Christians and the quality of our work, whether art, writing, or even jobs. I like these questions and think they are good ones to ask. I think quality does matter, not just intent. However, just because a Christian (or Catholic, or whatever) produces poor art doesn’t mean God can’t use it, or that He won’t use it.
I used to listen exclusively to Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), otherwise known as music primarily produced for a Christian audience. Oh, I know, lots talk about using it for evangelistic purposes, but it’s Christians who primarily buy and listen to it. In the years I listened to it, The quality of the songs (as I don’t believe in separating lyric from music, they both make up a whole) has improved over time, but the songs were never considered as good as a whole compared to the mainstream music industry. I heard a number of Christians speak disdainfully about the quality of the CCM over the years. Still, I’ve seen God use it to his glory.
I’ve had times where I wasn’t particularly focused on God but He used my petty efforts to positively affect people’s lives for Him . I’ve seen prayerful efforts fall flat. Maybe they were to His glory to and I was too upset to see it or be affected by His grace. Sometimes we are just too expectant of the result based on our efforts. Sometimes we are too judgmental of others based on what we think of the quality or content of their work.
Having the word Jesus in a song doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good, but we should be equally humble about our masterpieces and how we view trite work, because God’s grace extends to us all, and He will use whatever He chooses to glorify Himself. Standards of quality are useful to have, and I think lovingly challenging one another towards excellence is also important, but part of the wonder of God is that He is God, and we are not, and so our standards and our formulas aren’t much in light of eternity.
I need to remember that God’s grace is at work around me and in me, and God will work through all of our efforts, and then I need to extend that grace. I’m thankful to Flannery O’Connor for the reminder.