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Articles from Creative Writing Department

A Pilgrim's Progress to the Heavenly City: A Biblical and Theological Foundation for Creative Writing

From ancient times, human beings have used both practical and poetic language. Randy Smith examines the theological foundations of these ways of ordering different facets of human life.

When I get to the poetry section of English 102-where sunsets look like "etherized patients" and subway riders resemble "petals on a wet, black bough"-freshman composition students often ask me why poets cannot just "say what they mean" instead of using the roundabout language of poetry. Implied in this question is the belief that creative language, because of its indirection, says so much less-and, therefore, is worth so much less-than straightforward, practical language. But nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, in the first two chapters of Genesis, we find an endorsement of man's use of both practical and poetic language-each important as a way of ordering some facet of human life. Man's first recorded task in the Garden of Eden is the naming of "all cattle - the birds of the air, and - every beast of the field" (Gen. 2:20). Through the practical act of naming, Adam brings order to his external world, much as we use language today to categorize, define, explain, and argue in fields as diverse as business, science, education, and journalism.

In addition, Adam uses language in "impractical" ways before the fall. After his deep sleep, during which time God made Eve, Adam awakes and speaks man's first recorded words-a poem in praise of woman:

This is now bone of my bones
And flesh of my flesh;
She shall be called Woman,
Because she was taken out of Man (Gen. 2:23).

Of course, this statement is literally true in a way (Eve was made from one of Adam's own bones), but mostly the utterance is figuratively true (a statement of how Eve seems to Adam). Implied in Adam's bodily metaphors are the following ideas: Eve feels like a part of Adam, like the deepest part of him; Adam feels intimately connected to Eve; Eve fits Adam like his own bones and body; Adam loves Eve and desires to care for her like his own body; Eve nurtures and supports Adam like the blood made in the marrow of his own bones; losing Eve would be like losing a part of Adam's own body. If Adam had substituted any of these straightforward statements for his love poem to Eve, he would have said so much less-not so much more, as my freshman students often believe-than he said with his poem. Through naming (using factual language), Adam brought order to his external world by categorizing the varieties of animal life around him. Through making (using imaginative, metaphorical language), Adam brought order to his experiential world by suggesting and unveiling the meaning in his discovery of a bride.

Besides teaching composition and literature courses at Belhaven, I also direct the creative writing program and teach students in creative writing workshops each semester. While these students need less convincing than freshman composition students about the importance of creative language found in fiction, poetry, drama, and personal essays, they still (like many of us) are not likely to have thought through the philosophical and theological foundations for human involvement in creative writing. I believe we can find this foundation in three theological events-the Creation, the Incarnation, and the Ascension-each a way that God the Son intervened in human life.

In the creation account at the beginning of Genesis, we learn that "God created man in his own image" (Gen. 1:27). Besides being personal, relational, rational, moral, and spiritual, humans also reflect the "image of God" by being creative. In fact, as Leland Ryken points out in The Liberated Imagination (his book on "thinking Christianly about the arts"): "The one thing that we know about God [in Genesis 1] is that he created the world. In its immediate narrative context, then, the doctrine of the image of God in people emphasizes that people are, like God, creators." [1]

As discussed above, one of the primary ways that man reproduces at his own creaturely level the holy creativity of God is through language. Just as God made-"then God said, 'Let there be light'" (Gen. 1:3)-and named-"God called the light Day" (Gen 1:5)-so man names and makes. However, while God speaks his world into existence ex nihilo (from nothing), man speaks his ideas into existence ex omnibus (from all things), using images from God's world as symbols to give flesh and bones to his thoughts.

As we find out in John 1, it is the second person of the Trinity, the divine Word-the Logos, the divine "reason" that brings order or harmony to the universe-who accomplishes the physical act of creation, who brings order and variety to the formless void. [2] In the same way, man uses words of both reason and imagination to bring order to his physical and experiential worlds. In part, man obeys the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28 through language, using words to "subdue" the world, to both order and understand.

The Incarnation and Ascension provide models and symbols for two opposite movements in the creative use of language. In the Incarnation of Christ, we find an example of the spirit becoming flesh and, thus, a model for how human thoughts may become concrete expressions, for how ideas become poems and stories. As Ryken says about art in general: "The Incarnation of Christ provides a superb model for what a work of art is. Art, too, is a little incarnation-an embodiment of meaning in the concrete form of images, sounds, and stories." [3] Ryken even points out that Jesus practiced an incarnational aesthetic during his earthly life by telling parables-embodying heavenly truths in real-world stories about good Samaritans, diligent shepherds, and unforgiving servants. [4]

In one of my favorite poems on the philosophy of poetry, "Ars Poetica" by Archibald MacLeish, the poet says: "For all the history of grief / An empty doorway and a maple leaf." [5] What MacLeish seems to mean in this rather fragmented statement is that he could symbolize much about the entire history of human grief with the single image of an empty doorway and a fallen leaf-the doorway suggesting loneliness and absence, the leaf implying death and decay. This is an incarnational aesthetic in practice, employing the symbolism inherent in God's creation to express human experience in meaningful ways.

The second movement in the use of creative language is modeled on the Ascension of Christ-the movement from the world of flesh to the world of spirit, from image to insight, from reality to revelation. In this way, every kind of artwork-every poem, story, painting, photograph, musical composition, and dance-has the potential to become a type of "pilgrim's progress," moving the reader or audience from man's reality to God's reality, from earth to the heavenly city where Christ has ascended.

We might take a poem by Elizabeth Bishop entitled "Filling Station" as an example of a work that ascends towards redemptive insight. Although not specifically Christian in any way, the poem moves from a description of the "oil-soaked, oil-permeated" world of a little family-owned filling station to a cosmic glimpse of a loving "Somebody" who watches over us all (stanzas 1, 4, 5, and 6 quoted below):

Oh, but it is dirty!
-this little filling station,
oil-soaked, oil-permeated
to a disturbing, over-all
black translucency.
Be careful with that match!
...
Some comic books provide
the only note of color-
of certain color. They lie
upon a big dim doily
draping a taboret
(part of the set), beside
a big hirsute begonia.

Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
(Embroidered in daisy stitch
with marguerites, I think,
and heavy with gray crochet.)

Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
ESSO-SO-SO-SO
to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all. [6]

In the last stanza, Bishop describes the signs of care and order in the otherwise dirty and disordered station. The fact that "somebody" cares enough to make a doily, water the plant, and arrange the cans in an insignificant gas station suggests that "Somebody" (with a capital "S") is watching out for us all. Overall, the poem moves from "dirt" to design, from the inanimate, to the human, to the divine. [7]

In summary, these are the theological foundations for the work of creative writers: (1) God created us in His image with the ability to subdue the world through language, to bring order to our experiences by unveiling the meaning in them through words; (2) God took a human body on Himself and modeled for us the way that human thought can find concrete expression in the images and symbols of this world; (3) Christ, once his earthly work was complete, ascended back to the heavenly places, showing us that we must write with an awareness of the redemptive moments that penetrate our lives and of the heavenly hosts that witness our journey. We begin with Pilgrim in the lower region of "sorrow, sickness, affliction, and death" but hope to end with him where we "shall see the tree of life, and eat of the never-fading fruits thereof." [8]

_________________________________

Dr. Randy Smith is associate professor of English at Belhaven University in Jackson, MS, where he directs the creative writing program. He can be contacted at rsmith@belhaven.edu or at 601-968-8996.

This article was originally published in The Creative Spirit: A Journal of the Arts and Faith 3.1 (2003): 11-13.
_________________________________

Notes

[1] Leland Ryken, The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly About the Arts (Colorado Springs: Shaw, 1989), 66.
[2] New Geneva Study Bible, ed. R.C. Sproul, et al. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 1658.
[3] Ryken, 17.
[4] Ryken, 135.
[5] Archibald MacLeish, "Arts Poetica," in Poems on Poetry: The Mirror's Garland, ed. Robert Wallace and James G. Taaffe (New York: Dutton, 1965), 311.
[6] Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 (New York: Noonday P, 1997), 127-28.
[7] Some of the ideas in this section were suggested by an article by Robert Klein Engler entitled "Confessions of a Poetry Editor" in The Christian Imagination, ed. Leland Ryken (Colorado Springs: Shaw, 2002), 262-75. In this essay, Engler discusses the need for Christian poets to "strike the right balance between the body and the spirit" (262). To achieve this balance, poets must ground their writing in "this world of time and place" while seeking to transcend the temporal and find a higher, spiritual "order" (268).
[8] John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress (Grand Rapids: Revell, n.d.), 150.

The Love That Moves the Sun: Creative Writing and the Pursuit of Sacramental Vision

In this essay, Randy Smith describes the creation of art as


a search for sacramental vision-an apprehension of meaningful wholeness, of unity in the created order and in human experience, ultimately rooted in the Creator Himself.

Sacramental Vision and the Modern Poet

When I began graduate school in 1990 at the University of South Carolina, I took a course on four "Modern American Primitive Poets": Robert Penn Warren, James Dickey, Theodore Roethke and William Carlos Williams. I noticed in my study of these poets that most of them pursued an all-encompassing vision as they moved toward the end of their writing careers and lives. In his last collection of poetry, The Eagle's Mile, James Dickey imagines what it would be like to ride with the eagle to the heights of heaven: This animal "know[s] the circular truth / Of the void"; he has been "all over it building / [His] height / receiving overlook."[1] In this poem, Dickey desires to possess the bird's ability to see All that is below and the way that each part of the All fits into a larger frame of reference.

In his book-length poem, Paterson, William Carlos Williams imagines life as a type of dance where each motion serves an overarching choreography or "measure": "We know nothing and can know nothing / but / the dance, to dance to a measure / contrapuntally, / Satyrically, the tragic foot."[2] In fact, Williams says in his Autobiography that the whole reason for writing Paterson (a collage-style epic written between 1946 and 1958 and left uncompleted at Williams' death) was to find a metaphor that connected all the "isolated" elements of his life:

The first idea centering upon the poem Paterson came alive early: to find an image large enough to embody the whole knowable world about me. The longer I lived in my place, among the details of my life, I realized that these isolated observations and experiences needed pulling together to gain "profundity."[3]

Williams hoped that the metaphorical connections he forged in his poem would give meaning and significance to the details of his life.

In his last collection of poems, The Far Field, Theodore Roethke imagines death as a journey over "long waters" and life after death as a distant meadow; furthermore, in the title poem, Roethke predicts that after death he will finally understand how "finite things reveal infinitude," how each mountain, odor and memory forms part of the "ripple widening from a single stone" or life.[4] In the last poem in the volume, "Once More the Round," Roethke, like Williams, pictures life as a unified, and unifying, dance: "And I dance with William Blake / For love, for Love's sake; / And everything comes to One, / As we dance on, dance on, dance on."[5]

The late-career works of these writers suggest that they seek comprehensive vision through art because this vision imparts a satisfying and profound apprehension of unity and wholeness in their particular lives and in human life in general. But writers and artists are not the only ones searching for "overlook," "profundity," and "oneness." In his popular explanation of modern science, A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking says, "The eventual goal of science is to provide a single theory that describes the entire universe."[6] He goes on to write in the introduction:

But ever since the dawn of civilization, people have not been content to see events as unconnected and inexplicable. They have craved an understanding of the underlying order in the world. Today we still yearn to know why we are here and where we came from. Humanity's deepest desire for knowledge is justification enough for our continuing quest. And our goal is nothing less than a complete description of the universe we live in.[7]

If we take Hawking's and Williams' statements together, we see that modern science and art possess a common goal but proceed by different routes. Hawking says that people are not content to "see events as unconnected and inexplicable"; Williams declares that his "isolated observations and experiences needed pulling together." Hawking says people "crave an understanding of the underlying order in the world" and that scientific theory can satisfy this craving; Williams seeks an artistic, metaphoric image large enough to "embody" the discrete elements of his life and give them "profundity."

Sacramental Vision: A Definition

We might define the goal of the above writers, and even of theoretical scientists like Hawking, as the pursuit of "sacramental vision." According to Webster's, "sacrament" means "something regarded as possessing a sacred character or mysterious significance."[8] The Protestant church associates the word "sacrament" with baptism and the Lord's Supper; in the Reformed tradition particularly, theologians define sacraments as "holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace."[9] As signs, these Christian observances and their physical elements point to realities outside and beyond themselves. The administration of water, bread, and wine signifies the saving grace of Christ given to each believer through faith.[10] Thus, in their function as signs and symbols, sacraments bring physical and spiritual realities into meaningful-and metaphoric-relationship with one another. In fact, in the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster divines say that a "sacramental union" exists "between the sign and the thing signified" such that "the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other."[11] For example, at the institution of the Lord's Supper, Jesus establishes a sacramental, symbolic union between wine and his own blood: "Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26: 27-28).[12] That which is not blood (wine) is spoken of as if it is and thereby takes on profound significance, pointing to a number of spiritual realities such as grace, forgiveness, redemption, sacrifice, judgment, and covenant. The Lord's Supper also points backwards and forwards, in and out of time, to represent experiential realities as well: the last supper with the apostles, the death of Christ, and the future "marriage supper of the Lamb" (Revelation 19:9) when Christ will host a great banquet for the redeemed.

Building on the above ideas, we can construct a definition of "sacramental vision": a vision of the interconnectedness of all discrete elements of human experience and physical reality such that the world appears as one vast and coherent whole; a satisfying vision of the mysterious and meaningful significances attached to all facets of life, even the mundane and ordinary. In many ways, the search for "sacramental vision" is a search for "sacramental union" between the "this-and-that's"of reality. This definition pushes past Hawking's call for mere "description of the universe" (even if "complete") and more toward the poet's desire for "profundity." In the remainder of this essay, I will discuss the ways in which art in general, and creative writing in particular, are fueled by the desire for sacramental vision and achieve this vision in a limited but typical fashion. First, however, I will examine a classic literary text in which sacramental vision plays an important thematic role.

Sacramental Vision and The Divine Comedy

At the end of The Divine Comedy, after Dante has journeyed through the circles of the Inferno, the terraces of Mount Purgatory and the various spheres of Paradise, he arrives at the highest point in the universe, the Empyrean, where he sees the Trinity. In Catholic theology, this direct apprehension of God is called the "beatific vision":

The immediate knowledge of God which the angelic spirits and the souls of the just enjoy in Heaven. It is called "vision" to distinguish it from the mediate knowledge of God which the human mind may attain in the present life. And since in beholding God face to face the created intelligence finds perfect happiness, the vision is termed "beatific."[13]

In Canto XXXIII of the Paradiso, Dante "raise[s] his vision higher still / to penetrate the final blessedness" (lines 26-27) and sees the "Light Supreme" (line 67) which contains "three circles / in three clear colors bound in one same space" (lines 116-117)-Father, Son and Holy Spirit.[14]

However, in addition to this face-to-face knowledge (or beatific vision) of the perfections of the Divine, Dante also achieves an intuitive understanding (or sacramental vision) of the unity and wholeness of the mundane:

O grace abounding and allowing me to dare
to fix my gaze on the Eternal Light,
so deep my vision was consumed in It!
I saw how it contains within its depths
all things bound in a single book by love
of which creation is the scattered leaves:
how substance, accident, and their relation
were fused in such a way that what I now
describe is but a glimmer of that Light.
I know I saw the universal form,
the fusion of all things, for I can feel,
while speaking now, my heart leap up in joy. (lines 82-93)

As Dante indicates, sacramental vision allows him to see how all "scattered" things are "bound in a single book," how all things (substances), attributes of things (accidents) and relationships between things (relations) are "fused" together. Similar to the beatific vision, this vision leads to great happiness and satisfaction: "[Dante's] heart [leaps] up in joy."[15]

A Biblical Perspective on Sacramental Vision

If we return to the first few chapters of Genesis, we see that human language always has involved a sacramental dimension. In Genesis 1:28, God gave the "cultural mandate" (the command to rule creation and to create culture) to Adam and Eve and their posterity: "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion . . . over every living thing that moves on the earth." As demonstrated in Genesis 2, the first and primary way that humans began to subdue creation was through practical and creative language. When Adam "gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field" (Genesis 2:20), he did more than assign random linguistic markers to animals. We can be assured that his naming work was not a Seussian exercise resulting in generic appellations like "Thing One" and "Thing Two" (an observation not meant to cast aspersions on the genius of Dr. Seuss). Based on the command to rule and subdue, Adam's naming most likely involved the attempt to distinguish and classify animals. In other words, through practical language, Adam sought to understand the unity and order in God's garden creation, to see how all the various parts fit together to form a whole-which, by our working definition above, is a sacramental goal.

Likewise, in Chapter 2 of Genesis, Adam composes a poem about Eve, the pinnacle of creation:

This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man. (Genesis 2:23)

Through the medium of creative language, Adam attempts to perceive order, meaning and unity in various facets of his experiential reality: marriage, attraction, romance, sex, gender, similarity, difference, covenants, promises, aloneness, relationship, oneness, love, respect, authority, submission, etc. Thus, both practical and creative language acts provide Adam with a sacramental understanding of how part relates to whole, how "all things" are "fused" in a "universal form."

The above examples underscore the primacy and importance of language as a tool for understanding physical creation and human experience and for apprehending the connections that these have with spiritual reality. I often tell students in fiction, poetry and nonfiction workshops that writing is an excavation tool, a shovel we use to unearth meaning from the past and present. We do not use pens and computers merely to record on paper what we already know; we come to know what we know, and what can be known, through writing itself. As Adam named animals, the rich complexities of biological diversity unfolded before him; as he praised Eve with metaphor and image, his intimate relationship with her grew deeper and more fulfilling. Humans are distinguished from all other creatures in that they speak, write, create and ask the ultimately human question, "Why?" Naming was our first real task in tending the garden and subduing the world; poetry is our oldest art form (e.g., Adam's poem in Genesis 2)-both of which testify to our inherent and distinctive ability to use language.

As writers, the creation of poems and stories teaches us about the world and life, but the lessons do not stop there. We also learn about the Author of history's grand narrative, about the first Metaphor-Maker who likens the creation of "light" to the human act of speaking. According to the doctrine of natural revelation, the created order testifies to God's existence and His character: "[God's] attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made" (Romans 1:20). Consequently, as we subdue creation with language and pursue a sacramental understanding of its order, we do (or should) apprehend something more about the One who is the great Order-/Story-/Metaphor-Maker. In his Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes, G. I. Williamson describes Adam's relationship to nature and to God, and his sacramental work in the garden before the fall:

Before [Adam] the whole creation . . . was an unclouded mirror in which God could be seen with clear vision. . . . It was the task of man to become conscious of all the meaning deposited by God in the universe. Man began this task. . . . He used God-given powers of investigation to discover the true (that is, God-imprinted) meaning of nature. When Adam named something in the world of nature, he was simply reading the name (meaning) put there by God.[16]

Now, in the post-fall era, the mirror of nature is cloudy because human minds and hearts are darkened by sin, but the work of the writer (and the work of artists in general) can still be redemptive as the writer or artist seeks to illumine what can be seen about the Made, and about the Maker, through the now-dim mirror of the Made.

As the consummate Metaphor-Maker, God even discloses Himself in terms of language metaphors. At least three theological "Word" metaphors exist in scripture: the Spoken Word, the Written Word and the Living Word. As mentioned above, the Genesis account pictures creation as the Spoken Word of God-each day of creation begins with the phrase, "And God said. . . ." (Genesis 1), followed by the appearance ex nihilo of what God "says." In Proverbs, Solomon personifies the "Wisdom" of God (that which is contained in God's Written Word) as a woman who calls out in the streets and markets, "Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice" (Proverbs 1:20). Finally, in the strikingly poetic prologue to the gospel of John, the disciple "whom Jesus loved" portrays his Master as the Living Word: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1).

In fact, in his narrative, John appropriates a term (logos, or "word") from the Greek Stoics and gives it new meaning in order to describe Christ. According to the Stoics, logos is the ordering principle of the whole universe:

The term was used technically in the Greek philosophy of this period, particularly by the Stoics, to denote the controlling Reason of the universe, the all-pervasive Mind which ruled and gave meaning to all things. LOGOS was one of the purest and most general concepts of that ultimate Intelligence, Reason, or Will that is called God.[17]

Of course, John says much more than this about Christ: (1) While Christ is the "controlling Reason of the universe" and the "all-pervasive Mind which rule[s] and [gives] meaning to all things," He is not mere principle; rather, He is a personal, knowable being; (2) Christ is both the creator of the universe and the Redeemer who brings "light" and "life" to human beings (John 1:4); and (3) Christ existed before the world began, became incarnate and walked among us: "He was in the world, and the world was made through Him" (John 1:10).

A related Hebrew term (dābār) occurs in the Old Testament to describe the "word of the Lord" (an utterance from God):

As dābār, God's word is the virtual concrete expression of his personality. God is what he says. . . . As the expression of his being and character, the word of the Lord is the supreme means by which God makes himself known to his creatures. By such a word the world was brought into existence and history set in motion.[18]

Clearly, the logos of the New Testament and the dābār of the Old Testament are one and the same: The incarnate Christ is the "concrete expression of [God's] personality" and the "Word" that "brought the world into existence and set history in motion" (cf. John 1). As discussed, God uses his Word (Spoken, Written and Living) to "make himself known." In comparison-because we are made in God's image-humans use language to "make themselves known" (the expressive function of writing and speaking); however, we also use language to "know ourselves, the world, and the Creator" (the excavation function mentioned previously)-and this is where our writing assumes sacramental dimensions. Because God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, He condescends to "make Himself known" through language but has no need to "know Himself, humans, or the world"-He already does.

Finally, we have come full circle to the goal of sacramental vision. To know Christ, the Living Word (logos, dābār), is to know the One through whom all exists, by whom all is sustained, and in whom all will be consummated. Many passages in the New Testament speak of Christ as the agent who unifies all creation and imparts meaning to human life: "He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together" (Colossians 1:17); the Father has "[made] known to us the mystery of His will . . . which He set forth in Christ . . . to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth" (Ephesians 1:9-10); "[the Son] is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power" (Hebrews 1:3); and finally, Christ's own words at the conclusion of the Book of Revelation, "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end" (22:13).

Conclusion

If we return to the example in Dante's Paradiso, we see that the writer's sacramental vision preceded his beatific vision, and this is as it must be. Sacramental vision is always a penultimate vision in terms of importance; ultimately, we must apprehend the One who cements all together in profound relationship. Modern writers, such as those mentioned at the beginning of this essay, seem determined to pursue sacramental vision without acknowledging a grand Unifier, often believing that art or language can be that Unifier. Oddly enough, Hawking, the scientist, is the one who recognizes (at the end of A Brief History of Time) that science eventually leads to theology: "If we find the answer to [the question of why it is that we and the universe exist], it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason-for then we would know the mind of God."[19] Science and art can give us some answers-many answers-because both are God-ordained tools for tending and subduing the creation; language especially, as discussed, can be a powerful tool. If we are diligent in our creative works, we may catch heavenly glimpses that serve as types of the "face-to-face" vision to come. At the end of the Paradiso, "power failed [Dante's] high fantasy"; however, "like a wheel in perfect balance turning, / [He] felt [his] will and [his] desire impelled / by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars" (lines 142-45). This "Love" is what we hope to glimpse now-and see then.

___________________________________

Dr. Randy Smith is associate professor of English at Belhaven University in Jackson, MS, where he directs the creative writing program. He can be contacted at rsmith@belhaven.edu or at 601-968-8996.

This article was originally published in The Creative Spirit: A Journal of Faith and Art 4.3 (Fall 2006): 53-58.

Notes

___________________________________

[1] James Dickey, The Whole Motion: Collected Poems, 1945-1992 (Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1992), 431.
[2] William Carlos Williams, Paterson (New York: New Directions, 1958), 239.
[3] Williams, iii
[4] Theodore Roethke, Roethke: Collected Poems (Garden City: Doubleday, 1966), 201.
[5] Roethke, 251.
[6] Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam, 1988), 10.
[7] Hawking, 13.
[8] Random House Webster's College Dictionary (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991).
[9] G.I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2004), 259.
[10] Williamson, 260.
[11] Williamson, 262.
[12] All Scripture quotations are from The Reformation Study Bible, English Standard Version, ed. R. C. Sproul et al. (Orlando: Ligonier Ministries, 2005).
[13] "Beatific Vision," Catholic Encyclopedia Online (www.newadvent.org).
[14] Dante Alighieri, "The Divine Comedy: Paradiso," The Norton Anthology of Western Literature, 8th ed., Vol. 1 (New York: Norton, 2006), 1597.
[15] According to the entry on "heaven" in the Catholic Encyclopedia Online (www.newadvent.org), the "beatific vision" itself possesses a "sacramental" element called the "secondary object of the beatific vision": "But in fact, there is always connected with the beatific vision a knowledge of various things external to God, of the possible as well as of the actual. All these things, taken collectively, constitute the secondary object of the beatific vision."
[16] Williamson, 2-3.
[17] Merrill C. Tenney, John: The Gospel of Belief (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 62.
[18] Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), 1185-86.
[19] Hawking, 175.


The Wonder of It All: The Relationship Between Mystery and Art

While the word "mystery" may at first suggest the unknowable, Randy Smith presents a biblical understanding of mystery that affirms ever-increasing knowledge of the truth and unlocks the world as a fertile field of exploration for the Christian artist.

Mystery and the Arts
I often am intrigued by visual scenes or word pictures that suggest some element of mystery. In fact, I have a small but growing collection of "mysterious" photos-grainy, cloudy, overexposed, underexposed, and blurred photos that I have made (sometimes by accident, sometimes on purpose) over the last twenty years. In one, the camera pans with a luminous white gull as he skims above the blurred brown waters of the Savannah River just outside Augusta, Georgia. In another, my youngest brother "disappears" in a timed exposure as he rows a green jon boat across our uncle's south Georgia pond at dusk. In a picture that exists only in my mind, my father as a rural child of five or six stares into a darkened chicken house at night, straining to see the last row of Rhode Island Reds on the roost as they recede from light and sight. These mysterious images with seen and unseen elements have often prompted me to respond creatively-usually through writing poems.

This is the subject-the relationship between mystery and art, between beauty and wonder-that I wish to explore in this essay. I suppose I should begin with an attempt to define "mystery" (most certainly an ironic task), or at least to say what I think it is not. For sure, I do not believe that mystery is what Webster's College Dictionary says it is-"anything that is kept secret or remains unexplained or unknown." The problem here is with the "remaining" and "keeping."

As it seems to exist in human experience, mystery is associated with situations where truths are hidden but potentially and progressively revealed (i.e., the truth does not remain hidden)-the developing child in a womb, the appropriation of grace through communion, the decline into old age and death, the changing nuances of color in a winter sunset. A better definition of mystery might be the following: a truth, beauty, or quality that is hidden, but which has the potential to be discovered and progressively known, though never known fully or finally.[1] In addition, we might say that mystery finds its origins in the interaction between finite and infinite, between seen and unseen realities. All of this seems to get closer to the heart of what mystery is and how it functions.

So, then, what is the relationship between mystery and art? In my own experience, mystery is the very foundation for art-the unfolding of mystery the very reason that art exists. God has given art and imagination to humans as tools for digging into the mysteries of creation (reason, intellect, and observation are other powerful excavation tools). Of course, as Christ makes clear in Mark 4:11, spiritual truths can be apprehended only by those to whom God grants spiritual ears, the ability to hear "the mystery of the kingdom of God."[2] However, there does seem to exist some common grace through which God allows men and women to "un-earth" the wonders of this world, and even of eternity, through "common" means. Nicholas Barker, a poet and English professor, defines art as the "unfolding of previously unrealized potentialities in the aesthetic dimension of creation, or - the exercise on the part of artists of their God-ordained dominion over the aesthetic dimension of creation."[3] Through art, we can "subdue" (Gen 1:28) our mysterious world-unfolding the wonders that God has folded into creation.

In order to delve deeper into the nature of mystery, I would like to examine the concept from three perspectives: as a biblical doctrine, an aesthetic principle, and a practical motivation for artists.

Mystery as a Biblical Doctrine

In the Bible, we find four important mysterious subjects: the Godhead, creation, man, and the gospel. Ironically, the infinite God invites human beings to "know" Him in scripture: "For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings" (Hos. 6:6); "And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent" (John 17:3). In his treatise on Knowing God, J. I. Packer comments on the sense of purpose and power that come from knowledge of God:

What makes life worth while is having a big enough objective, something which catches our imagination and lays hold of our allegiance; and this the Christian has, in a way that no other man has. For what higher, more exalted, and more compelling goal can there be than to know God?[4]

Certainly, this "knowing" involves more than intellectual effort-individuals know God through faith, will, emotions, and moral practice as well.[5] And God has revealed himself and his character in many ways-the general revelation of external creation and internal conscience; the specific revelation of the written Word (Bible) and the living Word (Jesus Christ).

Yet, for all the emphasis on knowledge and revelation, the Bible also acknowledges that God is an inscrutable mystery and wonder: "Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! 'For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has become His counselor?'" (Rom. 11:33-34). Here, Paul recognizes that the omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent God cannot be known fully and finally by man-our "knowing" Him must always be a work in progress.[6] From a human perspective, mystery has its genesis in the interaction between God and man, between infinite and finite-mystery occurs when we encounter the One "in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col. 2:3). No diminishing rate of return exists when pursuing knowledge of God-he promises drafts of love, grace, beauty, and truth evermore satisfying than previous ones.

While the mystery of God arises from his infinite nature, the mystery of creation is rooted in its symbolic value, in the fact that it testifies to a spiritual and eternal reality that exists above, beyond, and behind physical nature.[7] We might define a symbol as something that stands for more than itself-and this "standing for" all of creation does as we know from the first chapter of Romans: "For since the creation of the world [God's] invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead-" (Rom. 1:20). We find a similar testimony from David in the Psalms: "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork. Day unto day utters speech, and night unto night reveals knowledge" (Psalm 19:1-2). Again, mystery rises out of the interaction between finite and infinite, temporal and eternal, natural and supernatural. In many ways, we do see "in a mirror, dimly" (1 Cor. 13:12) from our vantage point in this world as we peer through the cloudy window of creation into eternity.

Later in Psalm 19, David demonstrates the symbolic value of creation through use of metaphorical language: "In [the heavens] He has set a tabernacle for the sun, which is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoices like a strong man to run its race" (Psalm 19:4-5). Because the creation is inherently symbolic-from its inception, pointing to Someone, someplace else-David is free to use one thing to stand for another, to compare two dissimilar things, the sun and a bridegroom. In the rising and setting of the sun, we see a creation-picture of earthly and heavenly dramas-a groom pursuing his beloved, the heavenly bridegroom (Christ) pursuing his bride (the Church). As Paul says when he compares marriage to the relationship between Christ and the church, "This is a great mystery" (Eph. 5:32).

The mystery of man rises out of his unique position as the image-bearer of God. At the creation, the triune God said: "Let us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness" (Gen. 1:26). As a divine image-bearer, man is personal, relational, rational, creative, moral, and spiritual. In each individual, something of God can be seen, even though this image is obscured now by human sin. In Psalm 139, David praises God for the marvel and wonder of his own self: "I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are Your works, and that my soul knows very well" (Psalm 139:14). Even though we are finite, there is mystery in us because our very bodies and selves point to the infinite One who "knit [us] together in [our] mothers['] womb[s]" (Psalm 139:13, NIV).

In the New Testament, the Greek word for mystery (mystērion) is used twenty-eight times, twenty-one times by Paul himself, primarily to refer to the "mystery" of the gospel-hidden in ages past, but now revealed to the saints.[8] Through the incarnation-the person and work of Jesus Christ-we find the ultimate intersection of infinite and finite, temporal and eternal, and thus the zenith of mystery itself. In Colossians, Paul tells his readers that he has become a minister of "the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to His saints - which is Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Col. 1:24-27). In Ephesians 1, Paul says that God has "made known to us the mystery of his will"-that in the "fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ" (Eph. 1:7-10). By condescending to become "blood and guts, glands and genes,"[9] Christ brings us into the presence of profound eternal mysteries. As Paul says, we are invited to know that which (and the One whom) we can never exhaust knowing-"the love of Christ which passes knowledge" (Eph. 3:19).[10] Much as Adam and Eve were in the garden, and as the saints will be in glory, believers now stand, because of the Incarnation, face-to-face with the most real reality. G. Bornkamm says in his entry on "mystery" in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: "In Christ the heavenly reality breaks into this world."[11]

Mystery as an Aesthetic Principle

Because of the awe-inspiring relationship between God and man, the symbolic essence of creation, the image-bearing nature of human beings, and the limitless riches of the gospel, artists can rest assured that they dig into a world and experience that is saturated with meaning-they do not chase phantom rabbits of beauty and truth. Of this, the metaphysical poets of the sixteenth century were convinced. Through "metaphysical conceits" (outrageous, extended metaphors) in their poems, these poets found connections between wildly disparate elements of human experience: between the bite of a flea and the consummation of physical love, between the twin legs of a geometer's compass and the husband/wife bond, between military overthrow of a town and the subduing love of God for his own.[12]

Creative work such as this is predicated on a belief that our world lends itself to imaginative manipulation because it is inherently symbolic and metaphorical. Christians know this is true because the creation does stand for more than itself (the glory and attributes of God) and because there is a unifying thread running through all dissimilar things (the imprint of a Savior in whom all things are gathered into one).[13]

Mystery as a Practical Motivation

A biblical understanding of mystery also provides a strong practical incentive for artistic endeavor. First of all, the presence of mystery encourages artists to develop eyes with which to see mystery. In Mystery and Manners, a collection of occasional prose on the craft of fiction writing, Flannery O'Connor argues that an appreciation of mystery motivates writers to look beneath the surface of life:

- if the writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious-then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself. His kind of fiction will always be pushing its own limits outward toward the limits of mystery-Such a writer will be interested in what we don't understand rather than in what we do. He will be interested in possibility rather than in probability.[14]

Elsewhere in Mystery and Manners, O'Connor says, borrowing a term from medieval Bible commentators, that writers need to develop "anagogical vision"-"the kind of vision that is able to see different levels of reality in one image or one situation," that can apprehend "the Divine life and our participation in it."[15] Emily Dickinson describes this kind of vision in a poem about how poets find amazing wonders right under the noses of the rest of us:

This was a Poet-It is That
Distills amazing sense
From ordinary Meanings-
And Attar so immense
From the familiar species
That perished by the Door-
We wonder it was not Ourselves
Arrested it-before."[16]

Mystery also provides a second practical motivation for artistic pursuits-maybe the most impractical of all practical motivations. Through our creative responses to mystery, we are in a way practicing for eternal life. As John describes in his apocalyptic vision in Revelation, God will dwell with men after the creation of the new heaven and the new earth at the end of the ages: "Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God" (Rev. 21:3). Then, the redeemed will live in the presence of the limitless God forever-finite and infinite will dwell together, and, in that confluence, mystery will rise up eternally, rich and deep. Even though Paul looks forward to everlasting life and says, "now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I am known" (1 Cor. 13:12), he refers more to the full intimacy with which he will know God rather than to any full knowledge of God. By looking into mystery now, we practice one of our eternal labors-growing in our knowing of God evermore. If the perfect Christ himself grew on earth-"increas[ing] in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men" (Luke 2:52)-then Christians can assume that they will grow eternally even in their perfected post-resurrection state.[17]

In this life, we are given the privilege of peering into our grainy photos of mystery. We apprehend love, loss, beauty, brokenness, faith, hope, and change. Sometimes, we see that which thrills our souls. But in the life to come, we will see with greater clarity of vision what we cannot even imagine now: "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him" (1 Cor. 2:9). In eternity, our knowing of mystery will know no end.

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Dr. Randy Smith is associate professor of English at Belhaven University in Jackson, MS, where he directs the creative writing program. He can be contacted at rsmith@belhaven.edu or at 601-968-8996.

This article was originally published in The Creative Spirit: A Journal of Faith and Art 4.1 (Fall 2004): 4-9.
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Notes

[1] In the entry on "mystery" in the New Bible Dictionary (ed. J. D. Douglas, et al., Downers Grove: InterVarsity P, 1993), the editors distinguish between contemporary and classical definitions of the word "mystery": "But whereas 'mystery' may mean, and in contemporary usage often does mean, a secret for which no answer can be found, this is not the connotation of the term mystērion in classical and biblical Greek. In the NT mystērion signifies a secret which is being, or even has been, revealed, which is also divine in scope, and needs to be made known by God to men through his Spirit" (805).
[2] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotes are from the New Geneva Study Bible, ed. R. C. Sproul, et. al. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995).
[3] Quoted in Literature Through the Eyes of Faith, by Susan V. Gallagher and Roger Lundin (New York: HarperCollins, 1989), 45.
[4] J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity P,1979), 30.
[5] See the annotation on "True Knowledge of God" in the New Geneva Study Bible, 1167.
[6] S. Motyer, in his entry on "mystery" in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (ed. Walter A. Elwell, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), acknowledges the important role of "known" and "unknown" in Christian theology: "The concept of mystery has played an important role in Christian theology. The best theology has always maintained that the known must be balanced by the unknown, that God is a mysterium tremendum et fascinans, compelling the worshipper with awe toward him but remaining ultimately beyond the grasp of human reason and imagination" (741). In the same entry, Motyer discusses the flip sides of Paul's use of the Greek word mystērion in his New Testament letters: "These two sides of Paul's usage [of mystērion]-revealed and hidden-are not of course contradictory. They correspond to the two facets of all our knowledge of God, whose judgments are unsearchable and ways inscrutable (Rom. 11:33), even though 'he made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will' (Eph. 1:9, RSV)" (742).
[7] In his own maniacal way, Ahab searches for this spiritual reality in Moby-Dick (New York: W. W. Norton, 2002). Ahab says to Starbuck, his chief mate on the Pequod, that he wants to "strike through the mask" of apparent reality to see what, if anything, is behind it (140).
[8] Motyer, 741.
[9] I owe this phrase to a prayer that Knox Chamblin (professor emeritus, Reformed Theological Seminary) prayed for our infant daughter, Flannery Grace, on a visit to our home. Dr. Chamblin acknowledges his debt to C. S. Lewis, who is the original author of this phrase.
[10] In his entry on mystērion in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), G. Bornkamm says that the "mystery of Christ" is "the eternal counsel of God which [was] hidden from the world but eschatologically fulfilled in the cross of the Lord of glory-" (617).
[11] Bornkamm, 617. Bruce Cockburn makes a similar statement in his song "Cry of a Tiny Babe" (Nothing But a Burning Light, Columbia Records, 1991): "Redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe."
[12] All of these examples are from poems by the English poet John Donne.
[13] Even an unorthodox thinker such as Ralph Waldo Emerson believed that "the world is emblematic" ("Nature," Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Boston: 1960, 35). According to Emerson, the physical world was a manifestation of some vast, amorphous spirit that he called the "Oversoul": "A Fact is the end or last issue of spirit. The visible creation is the terminus or the circumference of the invisible world" (36).
[14] Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners (New York: Noonday P, 1997), 41-42.
[15] O'Connor, 72-73.
[16] Emily Dickinson, "448," The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 6th ed., Vol. B (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003), 2516.
[17] We can assume that paradise will not be the stagnant place of "no change" that Wallace Stevens imagines in his poem "Sunday Morning." Throughout the poem, Stevens argues that the sensual pleasures and vicissitudes (even deathly ones) of earthly life are better than a changeless paradise where "ripe fruit never fall[s]" (The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 6th ed., Vol. B, New York: W. W. Norton, 2003, 239).