Friday, July 29, 2016

compelled to create: art and faith

What must you do?
I'm not referring to your to-do list.
What are you compelled to do?
(besides eat chocolate)
What can you not help doing?

Asher Lev could not help but draw. His eyes would follow the contours of windows, of trees, of faces and their bodies. His fingers would trace shapes over and over, practicing. He filled reams of paper and acres of canvas. He dulled pencils and emptied tubes of paint. When he should have been studying Torah or mathematics, Asher drew. When he should have been listening, he absorbed himself in shadow and light, wondering how the effect could be achieved on paper.

What is it for you?
What were you born to do?

Asher's poor father could not understand him. He called drawing "foolishness" and chided his son repeatedly, angered by his distraction. But Asher could not shut off his fount of creativity. He even drew in his sleep (on the wall! with red crayon!). Asher's Hasidic Jewish community could not understand him. His classmates jeered at him, calling him "Picasso."

A dear friend of mine is an artist. After years of chronic pain, she's made a profound discovery—art is a form of praise. Pain has become the crucible for some of the best art she's ever birthed, more original and more meaningful, and therefore a part of her healing journey. Somehow her finger-gripped pencil bypasses the toxic cesspool of her own complaints, words that only drag her down. It liberates the praise-filled perspective she longs to have. She reminded me that the same has been true of my writing.

Enter the Rabbi—the most powerful figure in Asher's world. As his father's boss, the Rabbi's word was canon. He was never disobeyed. I expected him to come crashing down on the young artist, to forbid him to draw or paint. But in a remarkable plot twist, he doesn't. I won't spoil the rest of the story. If you haven't read the book yourself, put it on your list right now: My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok.

The friend I mentioned took a risk yesterday, showing her drawings to her parents. One brusque comment could have destroyed her, but by the magnificent grace of God, they gushed, awed by what she had created.

Providentially, after finishing the novel, I picked up the summer magazine of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, my alma mater. The theme? "Arts in the Church"—page after page of beautiful reflections on the place of art in our faith journey. Truly refreshing.

One article in particular struck me as appropriate: "Made by a Maker to be a Maker," by Bruce Herman, an artist and professor of art at Gordon College in Massachusetts. Herman's reflections mimic Asher's journey as an artist into adulthood. He says, "the child creates art from a place of fearlessness and natural freedom. Art and fear are not good bedfellows." (Fear makes a lousy bedfellow for dissertations, too, by the way.)

Night by Bruce Herman (1991)
According to Herman, "The artistic act is one that can only be wholehearted."As soon as Asher Lev discovers this, when he gives himself fully to the artistic process, he creates his greatest masterpiece. But it may cost him everything. Art is not easy. It is a massive risk.

In some cases, so is a blog post. Or a meal for honored guests. Or an academic paper. Or a remodeled kitchen. Or a counseling session. Or a sermon.

Quoting Tolkien, Herman says, "we put the thought of all that we love into all that we make." As I contemplate my next major writing project, I hesitate, but only for a moment. Just as Asher must paint, so I must write. I have no other option. All that I love will find expression on the pages of my next book. Fear has no place, only a complete devotion to the craft of writing until the project is birthed.

Herman insists, "The kind of makers we are to become involves echoing God's own character in our creative process." That involves self-sacrifice and risk, the possibility that it won't be well-received, or that we'll be misunderstood. But we were created to create. And so I must. And so must you. Let's make something good.

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