“What We Stay Alive for”: Why We Need Art to be Fully Human

Well, it looks as if every other Monday is going to be the new posting schedule from here on out. I do realize that I did not post last week, and it was quite difficult to just let that sit. But, I am in my senior year of university and only a few months away from graduation, so I shall need all the time I can acquire for my studies, which includes an extensive amount of the scribbling of many pages and the eating of large books. Expect every other Monday for a new post to pop up, friends. I do apologize for my inability to update you all last week when you were expecting a post. 🙂


There is something terribly wrong with twenty-first century society, and it has been gnawing at my brain for the longest of times. There’s a predicament that has both fueled a little rage in my little body, but also moved me to tears at the thought of its reality.

Allow me to open with an anecdote.

I remember visiting The Getty—an art museum in the illustrious city of Los Angeles—when I was a mere bonny wee thing of seven or eight years old.

I was afraid of art museums before my parents actually took my sister and I. I say afraid, because to a small child such as myself, there was nothing more frightening than standing in white rooms full of boring pictures for an entire day.

I remember the drive up to The Getty and the dread that filled me from head to foot as our little homeschool minivan climbed some Californian hills.

This was going to be horrid.

Darling small Emily…you had no idea what you were about to get yourself into.

Mesmerized is not even the best of words. Captivated also falls short, and next to awestruck it fails to describe the absolute thrill my heart felt on that day: the day I began to fall in love with beautiful things.

My small self dwarfishly stood in the shadows of massive sculptures of clay, marble, and bronze. I stared unblinkingly at masterpieces of oil on wood. And I did my absolute best to resist the temptation to touch the intricate wood carvings.

“There is Van Gogh’s painting,” my Mother pointed out to me. I looked up, and there it was: Irises, Vincent Van Gogh, oil on wood, 1889.

There were medieval paintings of Madonna and child, Egyptian reliefs and mummies, Asian tapestries, and, of course, marvels of the Italian Renaissance.

I am not even discussing half of what I observed that day.

I relished, savored, and delighted in the works of human creativity.

For the sake of authenticity, I won’t pretend that seven-year-old Emily was not just a smidge traumatized at seeing the plethora of motionless, naked males furnishing the sculpture garden. Greeks will be Greeks, I suppose. You have to love that attention to detail on some of those classic pieces. Perhaps that was a bit too far.

In all seriousness, I fell in love with beautiful things slowly, and my visit to The Getty was day one of an artistic journey that I’m still currently embarking on.

I love art.

I have grown up listening to classical music, reading books that allow me to think about the meaning of life, studying visual art from ages long past, and watching films that inspire and move the soul.

And so, I am once again brought around to the “predicament” that I mentioned upon the opening of this post: the predicament of the twenty-first century.

Art has lost its potency.

And I say potency, not because art is not potent in and of itself, but because it is not potent enough for the fast-paced, money-making, distracted human of the modern world.

Taking the time to enjoy art, be it in a written, visual, audible, or kinesthetic form, is not seen as advantageous. Art doesn’t help one commute to work. Art isn’t something that serves any particular monetary advantage apart from immersing the partaker of it in what it means to be human.

And I even see this among Christian society—Christians by and large (I don’t say all, mind you, but by and large) are unconcerned with artistic endeavors, and if they feel drawn toward the expression of the human heart and soul, they convert it in an attempt to make it “Christian art.”

Art of all forms and its relation to Christianity have been a feature of my academic life lately, as I have begun a 400-level English class on the history of Christian literature.

This may be my favorite course of my undergrad so far.

Last week, my classmates and I were asked to respond to the following prompt, in three to four hundred words:

In Francis Schaeffer’s essay “Perspectives on Art,” H.R. Rookmaaker is quoted as having written, “There are no prescriptions for subject matter. There is no need for a Christian to illustrate biblical stories or biblical truth, though he may of course choose to do so. An artist has the right to choose a subject that he thinks worthwhile” (qtd. in Ryken 45). Respond to this statement. Do you agree or disagree? Explain why. Can art be Christian? Explain why or why not. 

You know me. I can never manage to fit inside the box. 😉

A lot of my classmates severely disagreed with Rookmaaker, and for reasons I completely understand. I held their exact convictions about art a few years ago, and because of this, I was able to engage in some really intellectual discussion with them about this controversial facet of artistry.

I, however, agreed vigorously with Rookmaaker’s statement (as you probably can already presume), going so far as to write that Christian art…does not actually exist.

As you can imagine, I had quite a bit to say in this regard, and generated a good deal of healthy discussion:

Art can be about a “non-Christian” subject, and it can still bring glory to God and draw the observer/reader/listener’s mind toward truth, beauty, and goodness. There is a gap that Christians have made between the sacred and the secular that goes back to the Middle Ages, and even before that, starting with secular thinkers like Plato (and this is an incredibly long historical dilemma). 

A lot of my Christian friends only listen to “Christian” music, watch “Christian” films, read “Christian” books and et cetera. However, the world in which we live is God’s world. The human being—with all his flawed, beautiful tendencies—is God’s, and art that explores human nature is a thing of beauty to behold, and therefore, something to remind us of the ultimate truth it points us to. I don’t think art has to be Christian. In fact, I may go so far as to say that Christian art doesn’t exist, nor do I think it can.

As Christians, we don’t need to make Christian art. We need good art made by Christians.

Art is something that makes us human. It reminds us of our human limitations and pain. It gives us something beautiful to remember and observe when the lights grow dark. We are Christian, but as Christians, there is no denying that we share one common truth with everyone in this entire world: humanity.

We are human beings.

We were made to be human.

We love to create, for we were made by a Creator.

We feel the most powerful, most torrential of feelings. Our emotions are frightful to behold.

We love, we laugh, we dance, we sing, we write, we paint.

We all want to understand what we’re doing here, how we got here, where we’re going, what our purpose is, and who we are, because the truth is—no matter how firmly we believe anything about the human condition—there are so many things that we may never have the answers to.

So we wrestle. We pour our hearts and minds and feelings out into the written word, the unpainted canvas, the blank measures of an unwritten song, or the script on the stage.

We talk about the things we know, the things that trouble us, and the things we simply don’t understand and likely never will.

We are Christian. There is no explaining away of our faith in this scenario—far from it. To be Christian is to be human. Our human nature is worth exploring, for by exploring it, we better understand ourselves and thus, the relationship between man and God.

This is what art does for man—has always done for man—and to see it so slighted in our day and age is something that pains my soul.

Art is not just something nerdy or intellectual (although the studies of it certainly are that!). Nor is it (least of all) something far removed from real life, putting the art-consumer in a disillusioned frame of mind. Art isn’t cute, I guess is what I’m trying to say.

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 noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.

John Keating, from Dead Poets Society (1995)

During the trainwreck that has been 2020, the art of story is a solace and comfort in the midst of this “dark night of the soul,” and I think one of my favorite films of the year has been the 1995 film starring Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society.

First of all—before I say anything—allow me to say that watching young men in sweaters and spectacles read poetry and scream with genuine passion about Whitman or Emerson is just something that gives my cheeks a very healthy red glow.

We need more poetic young men, please.

Especially young men like Neil.

But Keating’s quote wasn’t wrong: poetry isn’t cute. Poetry—all art, for that matter—is something that allows us to better connect to what’s real and true. There’s nothing wrong with the maths and sciences—we need them to live. But while those help us live, the arts remind us what we are living for, who we are, and what we all struggle with.

Art reminds us of our ultimate end, our journey towards God, our existence and our problems and our fears and our pains and our joys!

Art reminds us to take a moment to relish the sun going down behind the hills, to run through a field of tall grass on a cold night in December, to want to feel once again the wind in your face as you stood on a cliff overlooking the sea, to recall the tears you shed and the anguish that robbed you of your sleep when someone you loved left this world, or to remember what that first kiss felt like.

“We should remember that the Bible contains the Song of Solomon, the love song between a man and a woman, and it contains David’s song to Israel’s national heroes. Neither subject is religious. But God’s creation—the mountains, the trees, the birds, and the birds’ songs—are also non-religious art. Think about that. If God made the flowers, they are worth paining and writing about.”

Francis Schaeffer, from “Perspectives on Art.”

Create something beautiful out of every waking moment, because that is what art is.

Because you are alive, you are human, you are a creation of the Creator, and you can contribute a verse to the powerful play.

And really, I ask: what will your verse be?

Now, I hope, dear friend, that you have not gotten the idea that I suggest that art is not something which cannot glorify God, for that is far from my meaning.

Art, if honest, true, human, and emotional, is a holy and pure pursuit which in every aspect glorifies God. In illuminating the plight of humanity—our pains and our plenties—we raise questions, and in raising those questions, we turn our eyes toward the truth.

Art is a philosophical and moral endeavor, believe it or not, and this is why I hold to it so dearly.

And when you have spent a long time reading books, browsing art galleries, and studying the many forms of artistic expression as I have, after a while you just sit back and ask yourself:

Is it not a grand thing to be alive?

I do so dearly hope that you feel the same way concerning artistic endeavors!

I realize what I’m arguing in this post is a bit contrary to what you may believe about art, but I hope my reasoning in this area is evident and understandable. I heartily welcome intellectual disagreement and discussion in the comments.

Thank you for listening so far, dear one. If you have made it to the end, I salute you. 😉

Mit Liebe,

Emily


Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life? 

Answer.
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Walt Whitman

8 thoughts on ““What We Stay Alive for”: Why We Need Art to be Fully Human

  1. This… is stunning, Emily. I just met you on Twitter (I’m @wildrosejournal ✨✨✨) and I was intrigued by this article because I’ve been wanting to watch the Dead Poets Society.
    You’ve given voice to something I’ve thought but have been afraid to say. I read the essay you referenced in The Christian Imagination a few years ago, and it challenged me so much. To think beyond creating sweet, safe stories—there is a bigger world with a lot of darkness in it. Am I going to shy away from that? Or is art more than entertainment? Is it that which helps us learn to see the beauty when life is dark? To realize we can find certain treasures only in the caves?
    Can I ask you something? Does this awareness make it hard for you to love daily life and resign yourself to the fact that there are mountaintops but there is also yet still the climbing, the pitching tent, the less thrilling moments?
    I’ve been trying to figure this out lately. ✨💛✨
    Bethany Rose

    1. Hi Bethany!
      So sorry for my late reply. The last few weeks have been an utter whirlwind!
      I am so glad this post was such an encouragement for you—thank you again for the retweet. I have been having more and more views since you did so, and I’m so thankful!
      The Christian Imagination is actually the textbook for the course! It’s a lovely compilation of essays on artistry in the Christian life. Isn’t it challenge? And I think it really raises a lot of questions, like you said. Do you shy away from the darkness? Is the darkness what helps us appreciate the goodness in life? All wonderful questions to be asking, especially if one is a storyteller.
      As for your final question, I found it so invigorating. I have to answer: no, it actually doesn’t make it hard for me to love daily life. Because the daily life is sometimes *the subject of the art.* Do you know what I mean? I suppose what I’m trying to say is this: the swift torrent of both beautiful and horrible emotions we feel and the burdens we carry and the laughs we laugh come to us usually in those “less thrilling moments.” I think some of my favorite works of art (I’m referencing paintings, here) are of ordinary women drawing water at a well in the middle of a cold winter or a young man slumped over at a writing desk. I think seeing the beauty and the struggle and the humanness in every single thing we do makes every moment even more beautiful. All of it is significant! Does that make sense? I sure hope that doesn’t sound too muddled or silly.
      Thank you so much for your sweet comment, and I’m so glad we have connected on Twitter!
      Talk to you soon,
      Emily

  2. 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻 BRAVO, EMILY 👏🏻👏🏻
    This was both a joy to read and a great encouragement, a reminder that I’m not the only one who feels pain at the disregard and even disdain with which so many in our modern world (and even worse, the Church) hold towards art. In my life, I’ve rarely encountered fellow Christians who have a passion for the arts and believe that they are not only worthy, but in some means, sacred, simply by existing (as they are one of the purest expressions of our Imago Dei, our existence as a creature made in the imagine of God, the original and great Creator). I’ve been taking an online Composition class from Cedarville University this semester, and you can imagine my joy when one of the first topics we had to cover was how creativity is vital to Christian thinking, and how the very act of creation is one way we can glorify God by being like him. Andrew Peterson’s book, Adorning the Dark, also does a fantastic job covering this topic, and opened my eyes to a lot of thoughts about “Christian art” vs art that glorifies and brings the audience’s attention back to God purely by its quality and beauty (and sometimes theme and subject matter, though agendas should never be held as more important than truly *good work*).

    I think I’m rambling by this point (I’ve read this post while sitting in the waiting room at the eye doctor, and I just couldn’t wait to get home to respond, so I fear my thoughts aren’t as organized in this comment as I usually attempt to make them 😅), so I’ll just leave off by saying again how much I enjoyed this post, and thanking you for writing and sharing it. 😊💕

    1. No, no, no, you are most certainly not the only one who feels this way, Shay. I have such a difficult time seeing people neglecting their artistic sides and the parts of them that makes them alive and human! It’s so saddening, especially among the Church. Art is indeed a holy thing! I’m completely 100% with you there—it reminds us of who we are.

      I will definitely be interested in reading this book of Andrew Peterson’s. I love his work, and I have heard quite a lot in particular about “Adorning the Dark.” This class at Cedarville seems to be stocking the fires of your imagination! It sounds so fun, and it sounds like we are in similar classes, almost? In regards to recent subject matter, at least?

      So glad this post was a nice eye-doctor-waiting-room reading material! I can definitely hear your delight in the post, and I’m so thankful it was an encouragement to you. Thank you so much for your comment, dear friend, and I’ll talk to you soon.

      With much love,

      Emily 🙂

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