Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Francis Schaeffer Perspective #4, Art is not Sacred

Perspective #4: The fact that something is a work of art does not make it sacred.

Schaeffer’s point here is that the greatness of the work of art does not validate that world view of the artist. This is a caution against letting the power of the art blind the viewer to any distortion or lack of truthfulness about the way things are as portrayed by the art. I think song can illustrate this point quite well. Song has a powerful impact on the whole makeup of a person. It seems to awaken a sensitivity within the psyche that makes one susceptible to the truth-claims of the song. Song is the combination of musical instrument(s), style, lyrics, and the personal touch of the one(s) who perform. Together, these components can produce something that keeps coming back long after the original hearing of the work. The message of the lyrics play again and again in one’s head, and the music with its melody, harmony, rhythm, and beat reinforces that message. The 1973 rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, is a case in point. I have never seen its performance, but I have heard much of the music to know that the Jesus of the opera is a phantom, and a dangerous one who destroys the imagery and truth of the Jesus of the Four Gospels. The tune was catchy and resonated with the lyrics.

Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ
Do you think you're what they say you are?
Jesus Christ
Do you think you're what they say you are?

Tell me what you think
About your friends at the top
Now who d'you think besides yourself
Was the pick of the crop?
Buddah was he where it's at?
Is he where you are?
Could Muhammmed move a mountain
Or was that just PR?
Did you mean to die like that?
Was that a mistake or
Did you know your messy death
Would be a record breaker?

Contrast that with Man of Sorrows (Philip P. Bliss, 1875):

“Man of Sorrows,” what a name
For the Son of God who came
Ruined sinners to reclaim!
  Hallelujah! what a Savior!

Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned He stood;
Sealed my pardon with His blood;
  Hallelujah! what a Savior!

Guilty, vile, and helpless, we,
Spotless Lamb of God was He;
Full redemption—can it be?
  Hallelujah! what a Savior!

Lifted up was He to die,
“It is finished!” was His cry;
Now in heaven exalted high;
  Hallelujah! what a Savior!

When He comes, our glorious King,
To His kingdom us to bring,
Then anew this song we’ll sing
  Hallelujah! what a Savior!

The psalms and hymns of our Sunday worship are a powerful force, and the church must be ever careful in the theology of its lyrics. There are some hymns, whose theology or egocentricity I find so offensive, I refuse to sing though all others around me participate.

Because the power of the art is so influential in pressing home the world-view it contains, the Christian artist must be careful not to portray inadvertently a perspective that is unbiblical. Christian speculative fiction is especially in danger. Take, for example, a Christ figure. Aslan from the Chronicles of Narnia is such a figure. Is there anything in Aslan’s behavior, speech, mood, or countenance that could portray a Christ that is unbiblical. True, we cannot control the imagination of the reader, but we should take care not to give anything questionable that the imagination can dwell on.

This danger is heightened when the speculative writing is turned into cinema with the wondrous graphics it has today. The imagination is far more passive in taking on the imprint of what is physically seen and heard. That is what I found so disturbing about the Passion of the Christ (2004, directed by Mel Gibson) and it is what I so much appreciated about Ben Hur (1959, directed by William Wyler). In The Passion, the body language, facial expressions, and mood made Christ, the Lamb without blemish, to be no different than any other (sinful) human – there was not the beauty of holiness that marked the Christ of the gospels. In Ben Hur, one never saw the face of Christ. Only once was there a full body shot, and it was from behind when Christ is about to deliver the Sermon on the Mount. A sacred respect about the character and manner of the Messiah was maintained. This is not a small matter when we consider that Christ revealed (exegeted, John 1:18) the Father, and we may assume that he did this in the minutest detail of his speech, facial expressions, and mannerism.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Francis Schaeffer's Perspective #3: Continuity with Words and Syntax

Perspective #3. In all forms of writing, both poetry and prose, it makes a tremendous difference whether there is a continuity or a discontinuity with the normal definitions of words in normal syntax. 

In this perspective, Schaeffer uses both literature and painting as examples. It is easier to comprehend his point by first considering a picture. Abstract art will have shapes and colors but does not communicate anything concretely
meaningful. One may look at the art and see something familiar. For example, in this picture, I see a fish feeding. But I also see the mouth and chin of a child; and a giant hair follicle or maybe Larry the Cucumber. In abstract art, one sees intriguing and aesthetically appealing shapes and colors, but they have no meaning except what the observer gives to them, a meaning that comes out of an association between what he sees in the art and what he knows as real and has a meaning which everyone agrees on.

Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce, might be considered abstract art in prose.[1] Jabberwocky, by Lewis Carroll, less so. It is classified as a nonsense poem, but  does have enough sense to it that the killing of a monster is not missed. Its appeal (and clarity also) is heightened when read aloud.
Akin to totally abstract art is art that has identifiable forms in it, but are arranged in such a way that in a casual glance one’s mind does not detect anything amiss; but then, on closer scrutiny, they defy meaning. The graphic art of Maurits Cornelis Escher is an example. In his painting, Relativity (1953), there are a number of stairways and windows that in themselves make perfect sense. But there are people walking up and down them in ways that are impossible and therefore make no sense. For example, the stair at the top of the picture has two persons on it facing the same direction and nearly at the same point, but one is moving up the steps while the other is going down them. We are imaginatively torn as we try to conceive of both true at the same time. We are trying to turn the illogical visuals into something logical, and it gives rise to a frustrating feeling of helplessness because what seems to make sense at first suddenly becomes impossible and thereby has no sense at all. Prose that mimics this kind of art can produce the same frustration.

Schaeffer does not see such art as intrinsically immoral or anti-Christian, but simply that it loses a dimension of communication.[2] Here we are brought back to the point that communication in art is significant, and if so, it increases its value. Communication is important, and it implies a message. It is message that writers of speculative fiction (or any fiction) must give care to. Carelessness or insenstivity in the use of vocabulary, syntax, and grammar will affect the clarity and possibly the meaning of the message. It is not simply words arranged according to rules of grammar and syntax. It is more. Stephen King made the astute observation, “Take any noun. Put it together with any verb, and you have a sentence. It never fails.”[3] The noun and verb follow the rules of grammar and syntax. We may think that all sentences with just a noun and verb say little – except the Johannine observation, Jesus wept. That simple sentence is a jewel whose beauty is magnified by the contextual earth it lies in.

Consider the noun Frog and put it with the verb sings - Frog sings. Does the sentence say something? We know there are no such things as singing frogs, except imaginary ones. A singing frog makes no sense. Are we to say that a story about a singing frog has no value because of the unlikelihood (really, impossibility) of any frog having the ability to sing. Warner Brothers introduced Michigan J Frog in a Looney Tune cartoon on December 31, 1955 entitled, One Froggy Evening
If you’re as old as I am, you likely saw it in its debut. The animated feature was a speculative masterpiece, and it did say something – this world is cursed and our best plans go awry. The humor may have dulled that point, but it was there. A singing frog makes no sense, but a story about a singing frog can make a lot of sense. That is why the Chronicles of Narnia makes sense. Talking beavers are illogical, but they can say things that are profoundly true. Speculative fiction uses the illogical, but it does so in such a way that a message is communicated. Speculative fiction is not abstract art, and it should not be art that frustrates because it is imaginatively perplexing.

[1] “The entire book is written in a largely idiosyncratic language, consisting of a mixture of standard English lexical items and neologistic multilingual puns and portmanteau words, which many critics believe attempts to recreate the experience of sleep and dreams. Owing to the work's expansive linguistic experiments, stream of consciousness writing style, literary allusions, free dream associations, and its abandonment of the conventions of plot and character construction, Finnegans Wake remains largely unread by the general public.” Wikipedia Article, FinnegansWake.

[2] Schaeffer writes, “If there is no continuity with the way in which language is normally used, then there is no way for a reader or an audience to know what the author is saying. . . When, therefore, there is no attempt on the part of an artist to use the symbolic vocabulary at all, then communication is impossible here, too. There is then no way for anyone to know what the artist is saying,” 37-38.

[3] Stephen King, On Writing.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Francis Schaeffer’s Perspective #2: The Strength of Art Forms

This is the second article in a series on Francis A. Schaeffer's "Perspectives on Art" in The Christian Imagination, ed. Leland Ryken (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Waterbrook Press, 2002).

Perspective #2. Art forms add strength to the world which shows through, no matter what the world view is or whether the world view is true or false.

Rembrandt’s Carcass of Beef serves to illustrate how the form of art adds strength to the world which it manifests.

“Rembrandt’s art causes us to see the side of beef in a concentrated way, and, speaking for myself, after looking and looking at this picture, I have never been able to look at a side of beef in a butcher shop with the superficiality I did before.” (p 37).

Unfortunately, Schaeffer did not go into a little more detail about the differences in the way he looked at a beef carcass before and after the Rembrandt experience. I think the proverb ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ has some bearing on this. Looking at art is subjective. No two persons will stand in front of the Carcass of Beef and see the same thing. An educated eye will look at art differently from the way it looks at the world which the art reflects. Even the uneducated eye – to see a reproduction of the real world from the hand of the artist alone says something, not only about the artist, but the real world. There is intrigue over why the artist chose the subject and how he transferred what he sees onto the canvas. The final art product carries the full weight of that intrigue.

The art form of fiction shares the nature of the art form of the Rembrandt.  The page is the canvas on which the story is painted and the words are the oils applied with the skillful strokes of grammar and syntax. The writer produces a story that has its ties with the real and ordinary, and places it before the reader ‘in a concentrated way.’  

Schaeffer kept looking and looking at the painting. It had a wondrous appeal. I think, however, the bare fact it was hanging in the Louvre with Rembrandt’s name on it might have raised the appeal several degrees. The works of the masters, or even lesser ones of still lofty reputation, evoke a prejudiced eye. Perhaps the mystique of the artist himself heightens one’s sensitivity to see greatness when it would otherwise be missed. There are artists who are missed even though their works are great because they do not have the celebrity. This holds true for many writers, especially Christian, and to put a finer point on it, Christian speculative fiction writers.[1]

Regardless of the celebrity element, I think we may assume that Rembrandt’s art is capable of having a profound impact in precisely the way Schaeffer hints because it is focused (concentrated). What Schaeffer saw was a result of Rembrandt’s ingenious eye scrutinizing the hanging beef in a way that others do not; perhaps, cannot. Not only his perception, but also his touch makes the difference – a photograph of the same side of beef would not bring out the same subtleties, unless that photo was the art work of a professional photographer whose use of light and dark and angle reveals things that a mere random shot would not.

Schaeffer observes that the side of beef phenomenon holds for literature, that ‘good prose as an art form has something that bad prose does not’ and ‘poetry has something good prose does not.’ The something is the side of beef factor, the thing that grabs one’s attention and increasingly occupies it. I agree in the general direction this line of thought takes. However, I balk at the idea that poetry has something that good prose does not, and I think that much of the reason has to do with me, a left-brained reader. I rarely come away with something moving or epiphanic from poetry. I struggle with Frost and Shakespeare. For me, the poetic form more often than not obscures and confuses. That is my experience and must own up to it. But good prose, ah. Good prose has quite a different effect. It sometimes reaches the intensity of hearing Mozart or Bach or Beethoven – it moves. It opens my imagination to nuances of the truth known and heretofore unknown, and its meaning becomes intellectually and emotionally aesthetic.

Obviously, good prose does far more than bad prose, but it is a point worth making. It is a strong reminder to authors of Christian fiction that their prose needs to be top notch. None of us is a Lewis or a Tolkien when it comes to speculative fiction, regardless of those dastardly over-zealous reviews that compare our work to theirs. I had one refer to The Oerken Leaves (now rewritten as The Oerken Tree) as C. S. Lewis meets Mark Twain. Another compared it to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Another wrote, ‘If you like Lewis and Tolkien, you’re going to  love this.’ They all make me cringe because it just is not so. Yet, I hope that The Oerken Tree is good prose, and I am not so sure it (or your work) has to be worthy to sit side by side with the Greats in order to be considered top notch. But it surely needs to be several huge steps in that direction. In my opinion, Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga is there. Polivka’s Blaggard’s Moon should be sitting at least on the same shelf.

There are many Christian young adult fantasy works that have become quite popular in the last decade, and their authors are hailed as great writers. But I think their writings fall in the category of bad prose simply because it is bad art. The good word-artist paints with elegance and beauty. It does not have to be like the masters, but there should be some breath-taking moments in them. Many do not rise much above finger painting and paint by numbers. Few of us bring the reader into a Carcass of Beef experience.

[1] In my opinion, there is not many current day works of this type being produced that is worthy of celebrity fame simply because the writing is only average or slightly better or worse. On the other hand, there are a few who are quite worthy, but the ascription of ‘Christian’ and ‘speculative’ hinder their recognition. It is difficult to gain acknowledgement, as any writer knows, no matter how good the writing. Christian speculative fiction especially. The Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy (CSFF) blog tour has been promoting the genre since 2006. Rebecca Luella Miller administrates the tour. She also administers Speculative Faith, which features articles by authors and agents in the genre. The CSFF blog tour features a novel every month in which the members that participate post a review of the novel or a discussion of something closely related to it. Some provide an interview with the author. Typically, the participating member can receive a courtesy copy of the novel for the review. It is a great way to add to one’s library. The tour lasts three days. The critiques, for the most part, are very insightful and objective. If you think you might want to join the tour, visit here.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Reflections on Francis Schaeffer’s Perspectives on Art

Francis A. Schaeffer presents eleven distinct perspectives[1] from which a Christian can evaluate works of art. Schaeffer uses literature and painting as primary examples of how his eleven perspectives are used. I want to look at these perspectives in a series of articles and consider their value to the Christian artist, especially for the writer of Christian speculative fiction.

Perspective #1. A work of art has a value in itself. 

Schaeffer ranks this as the most important of all perspectives, and yet I find no clear explanation of what he means. His summarizing statement is tautologous, “Perspective number one is that a work of art is first of all a work of art.” (p 37). The concept of a 'work of art' could be translated, a 'work of beauty,' or a 'work that elicits enjoyment.' Schaeffer writes, "Art is not something we merely analyze or value for its intellectual content. It is something to be enjoyed. The Bible says that the art work in the tabernacle and the temple was for beauty."[2] Given this, Schaeffer places a premium on the aesthetic value of art, making the intellectual content of lesser worth. 

He reinforces this by offering three possible meanings concerning the nature of a work of art the first two of which, in his mind, are invalid. These are (1) the view that art does not say anything and cannot be analyzed, it is simply there; it is art for art’s sake (2) the view that art is the embodiment of a message about the world or man or artist – anything; the fallacy here, in Schaeffer’s thinking, is that this view reduces art to an intellectual statement; (3) the view that the artist’s own world view or view of reality is perceived through a body of work which the artist produces; a body of work is necessary to provide a sufficient sample avoiding a one-sided and limited evaluation.

Given that third point, one wonders if an artist who produces only one work can truly be called an artist, and his work, a work of art. Consider Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949) whose novel, Gone With the Wind, was the only one she wrote. She was a journalist and one might contend that her journalistic writings would offer a greater sample. But they would likely be disqualified seeing that that kind of writing is analytical, informative – in a word, intellectual. Perhaps Gone With the Wind in itself provides ample material (423,575 words[2]) on which to draw some conclusions.

Consider also that if the ascertainment of the artist’s view of reality is a necessary component to evaluating a work of art (as a work of art), where does speculative fiction stand? I cannot be absolutely certain, but I think J K Rowling’s view of reality would not include magic and all the incidentals, though the tale of Harry Potter itself does. The magic and all its attendant paraphernalia is pertinent to the meaning of the story. Assuming that speculative fiction tells a tale which reflects the author’s philosophical outlook (Good always defeats Evil; Love endures; Suffering is good and necessary for Victory), it is particularly problematic. All fiction is make-believe, but speculative fiction is make-believe within make-believe and, therefore, has an added layer of complexity in discerning the author’s (artist’s) view of what this world (cosmos) is all about. To qualify a bit, I am talking about a make-believe that has little to do with our world. An example would be George MacDonald’s (1824-1905) Phantastes, whose message is slippery,[3] I think, if there be an over-arching message at all. It does offer glimpses here and there into MacDonald’s perception of things. For example, Cosmo and the mirror allow MacDonald to give a little of his thought about the significance of art and the imagination.[4]

Rowling’s Harry Potter is not nearly so enigmatic, however. There is not much difference between the wizard world of Harry and the muggle world. The central intelligent beings in both are humans and all the frailties and pleasantries of the one world apply to the other. We ordinary humans can empathize with the extraordinary world of witchcraft and wizardry because at bottom, there’s really not that much difference. The fantastical element of speculative fiction is a perfect fit for mystique and intrigue, which are a part of its beauty and appeal; it elicits enjoyment. The mystique and intrigue of the non-muggle realm provide Rowling with a story-world that likely rivets the attention of the reader and gains his imagination and empathy in a more zealous way, thereby more keenly acclimating that reader to her world-view. That is an important principle for the Christian writer of speculative fiction. You are writing to entertain, but you are also writing to grab the reader and hold him down so that he cannot help but hear what you are saying. This assumes that all our story writing will have a message, which I think is true.

Another thought: Though art should not be reduced to an intellectual statement it cannot be divorced from it either. Is not an author’s world-view and the communication of that through his artwork, intellectual? Not as a formulaic expression, certainly, but it does say something that requires intelligent consideration. In order for it to be intelligible at all, it must be meaningful and capable of interpretation. It must say something intelligent. Given that, it seems the value of all art is necessarily bound to its ability to say something that is intelligible, and therefore has meaning, and meaning implies a message. Art is bound to an inherent message.

Schaeffer does not deny that art has meaning. In fact, he would say it does, but he apparently thinks it is secondary to the art. This is to say that the medium of the message has greater value than the message itself. One may ask, If there is no message, what justifies the medium? Without a message, there is no necessity for a means to convey that message.

The word (message) of God, for example, has a medium: inscripturated human language (in its final form for the present evil age - yes, I am a cessationist). There would be no justification for a Bible if there were no special revelation from God. One could even argue that human language is necessary because it is analogous to divine language (it is a part of our image bearing capacity), and in and of itself is revelatory (points us to God as Language, especially as Language incarnated in the Word - Jesus Christ). Language is a medium necessitated by the need for communicating a message, and most of all, for communicating the truths of God. 

In like fashion, message necessitates art (in whatever form) as a means to communicate that message. I don't think it is the reverse. The message is prior to the art. I think a better point to make is that because message and medium are congruently necessary, reflection should take us into the synergistic relationship between the message and its medium in terms of their power and beauty, and consider both to be of tantamount importance in determining the value of art.

How great is the divide between the art and the world view of the artist? How interdependent are they? Another way to ask this is, What is the coherency between beauty and content, entertainment and message? This has a special bearing on all Christian speculative fiction (or any fiction). The idea that one can write merely for entertainment is questionable with regard to its validity or even its possibility. This does not mean I think entertainment is overrated. Part of the quality of the medium is its ability to hold the reader's attention agreeably, or simply stated, to entertain. It is that 'mystique and intrigue' as entertainment that gives speculative fiction an advantage in its value. But if the medium of art is justified only if there is a message, then we cannot write merely for entertainment's sake. Rather, we must use the entertaining value of speculative fiction to bring home the message. 

[1] Francis Schaeffer, “Perspectives on Art,” in The Christian Imagination, ed. Leland Ryken (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Waterbrook Press, 2002), 35-41.
[2]  ibid., p 35.
[3] Compare J K Rowlings’ Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the largest in the series, at 257,045 words.
[4] In The Fantastic Imagination, MacDonald poses the question, Must a fairy-tale have meaning? MacDonald answers, “Everyone...who feels the story, will read its meaning after his own nature and development: one man will read one meaning in it, another will read another.” Does this reveal a relativist’s world-view?
[5] Cosmo’s reaction to the mirror: "What a strange thing a mirror is! and what a wondrous affinity exists between it and a man's imagination! For this room of mine, as I behold it in the glass, is the same, and yet not the same. It is not the mere representation of the room I live in, but it looks just as if I were reading about it in a story I like. All its commonness has disappeared. The mirror has lifted it out of the region of fact into the realm of art; and the very representing of it to me has clothed with interest that which was otherwise hard and bare; just as one sees with delight upon the stage the representation of a character from which one would escape in life as from something unendurably wearisome. But is it not rather that art rescues nature from the weary and sated regards of our senses, and the degrading injustice of our anxious everyday life, and, appealing to the imagination, which dwells apart, reveals Nature in some degree as she really is, and as she represents herself to the eye of the child, whose every-day life, fearless and unambitious, meets the true import of the wonder-teeming world around him, and rejoices therein without questioning?” Phantastes, p 78