catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 23 :: 2003.12.05 — 2003.12.18


The rat race, art, and the inner life

There are two sides to every human being. There’s the side we show the world, the side with which we try to attain some measure of peace or glory through the roles we’ve carved out for ourselves—good mother, hard worker, talented singer, dedicated servant. For most human beings, this is the only side they are aware of. Sure, they might feel a small voice inside them that cries out for nourishment from time to time, but that’s easy to drown out with a lot of work and errands. As Christians, who have heard that small voice and turned to Christ to satisfy it, we know that there is another side to a human being: the heart. In The Sacred Romance

, authors Brent Curtis and John Eldredge tell us that the true journey of a person is the journey of his or her heart.

Christians mistakenly believe that since they’ve heard the small voice and answered its call, their heart must be satisfied and whole. Curtis and Eldredge tell us that this is not the case:

Some years into our spiritual journey, after the waves of anticipation that mark the beginning of any pilgrimage have begun to ebb into life’s middle years of service and busyness, a voice speaks to us in the midst of all we are doing. ?There is something missing in all of this,? it suggests. ?There is something more.? … We listen and we are aware of … a sigh. And under the sigh is something dangerous, something that feels adulterous and disloyal to the religion we are serving. … We tell ourselves that this small, passionate voice is an intruder who has gained entry because we have not been diligent in practicing our religion. … We try to silence the voice with outward activity, redoubling our efforts at Christian service.

The heart, they say, must be constantly nourished and defended. As Proverbs 4:23 says, the heart is the wellspring of life. Our public persona, or our outer life, is merely a result of the activity in our heart, our inner life—we serve in our church because of our love for God; we learn to sing because we hear its beauty; we help others because we were touched by someone helping us first. But our hearts are very quick to forget. Caught up in daily busyness, we forget about our love for God or the beauty of this world; instead we trudge to yet another potluck supper or another choir rehearsal.

Since God is alive in us, he calls to us still with that small voice. And from time to time—often in the middle of the night or the early morning—we hear that voice and we realize that our heart is dry. So we redouble our efforts at Christian service: We volunteer to organize the potluck or to lead the choir. Our hope is that if we just keep doing more and more for God, then our hearts will once again be filled and alive. We think that if we just accomplish more around the house, then our love for our spouse will stop wilting. We believe that if we take a vacation or start up a hobby, the world will seem new to us once again and our heart will stay fed.

But what we don’t realize is this: while the movements of the heart will translate into tangible activities in our outer life, it doesn’t work the other way around. Accomplishing tasks and exercising our talents will never work to rejuvenate the heart. The things that rouse our hearts are knowing and being known. Remember how your heart felt when you first knew that the being who had created the entire universe wanted to know you in all your rags and tatters? Have you had a deep conversation with a loved one and finally understood something new about him or her? Have you ever read a story or heard a song that you identified with, when you felt a sense of connection to the artist and realized that someone else knew how you felt? Beauty, touch, mystery, self-disclosure, art—these speak the language of the heart.

The character of John Keating in Dead Poets Society puts it this way:

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering—these are all noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love — these are what we stay alive for.

The human impulse is to grab hold of these elements and never let go. We don’t want that ecstasy of a church retreat or a first kiss or an inspirational “carpe diem” movie to fade. So we hold onto it long after it has become stale instead of searching for more nourishment. If we knew our hearts better, we’d know that we should be constantly refilling our tanks by searching out new relationships, seeking the mystery and wonder of God, and finding new and different voices in art. I believe that art isn’t just permissible for a Christian to interact with, it is necessary.

Now, since the Bible explains the importance of our relationships with God and with other people, I’m going to assume most Christians understand how those can feed the heart. The usefulness of art is perhaps a little more difficult to understand. I believe that starts with how we define art—the first thing that jumps to mind for many people is a gallery of paintings and statues they remember from grade-school field trips. But when I speak about art, I am referring to it as a verb: Art is what takes place when you’re listening to that song and you identify—it’s the communication of an idea or truth by means of an art work. So when I say that art speaks the language of the soul, I mean that we, as patrons, must discover what the artist was saying about human existence; we must try to know the artist.

This isn’t easy, of course. It first requires an understanding of the art form and its history, and then turns into a journey of listening and struggling. Let’s use Shakespeare as an example, since most people are familiar with him. When most kids and teenagers think of Shakespeare, they think of incomprehensible language, stiff acting, and people running around in tights. Many adults do, too, for that matter. But people who have studied literature—people who can decipher Shakespeare’s language, illuminate his themes, and open their hearts to his stories—understand why the Bard is still revered after 400 years. Other people study Mozart; others Monet; others Martin Scorsese. The point is, we enter an art form with very little idea of why its heroes are so revered. It is only after much study and thought that we are illumined, that we are prepared to receive the communication of the artist.

Even if the study of books and film and music does not in and of itself move us closer to God (although it should—it helps us understand more clearly what it means to be human, which in turn gives us a clearer picture of God’s relationship to us), the journey toward illumination becomes a familiar one to us, one that will help us in our study of God. For instance, our hearts sometimes believe that having money will bring security; that rings true. But once we discover that we’ve mistaken security for entrapment—from The Game, perhaps—we discover that principle rings true on a deeper level. After time, we learn to distinguish between the “truths” of our culture and the truths of being human. This helps us in our understanding of God. For example, we believe that when we approach the throne we are to bring our praises, confession, and thanksgiving with us. And while that kind of supplication is important, we learn later what Henri Nouwen once wrote, which is that to pray without ceasing is to live out our entire lives before the throne, warts and all, feeling and thinking everything within the presence of God. Curtis and Eldredge put it this way: “What [God] is after is us—our laughter, our tears, our dreams, our fears, our heart of hearts. … How few of us truly believe this.” We find that this idea rings true in the deepest part of us, and we recognize the resonance of truth because we’ve heard that sound before when we’ve been exploring our world through art.

But becoming familiar with the process of illumination is not the only way that art helps us understand God. There’s also the simpler reason that God is an artist himself. God knows full well that beauty and story are the languages of the heart, and he’s chosen to reveal himself to us in these languages. God is that great author who we’ve heard so much about but haven’t read much of what he’s written (even if we do quote from him a lot). He’s dismissed by many people the way that Shakespeare is dismissed by the masses—based mostly on being incomprehensible than on being second-rate. We have to unravel the Bible the same way that we would unravel any piece of art, for God has used the elements of story and mystery and poetry to disclose himself to us. The better we understand these artistic languages, the better equipped we are in our pursuit of him.

The biggest stumbling block in our understanding of God is that the heart forgets. We scratch our heads when the Israelites forget about God’s provision at the Red Sea just three months later, opting to build a golden calf at Mount Sinai. But don’t we, too, forget the miracles of God in our lives? Don’t we forget to seize the day after a few weeks of routine living? Don’t we find ourselves being reminded of truths that we’d thought we’d already learned? There is no one-time fix for the heart, no Bible verse or movie that will satiate it for long. The nourishment of our hearts must take place again and again; our pursuit of truth, of understanding God, of what it means to be human must be an everyday adventure. We can never allow ourselves to think we can’t afford to befriend a stranger, or that we’ve experienced all that the cinema or library has to offer us, or that we’re just too busy to pray. We must continue to live our lives openly before the throne. We must continue to watch, ponder, and discuss art. We must take our focus off the rat race and return it to the journey of our hearts.

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