The Common Good

Art As An Act of Faith

Almost two years ago, I took a titanic risk. If you look at things from an earthbound perspective, what I did is: I took my livelihood, and my children's provision, in my hands alone. I quit my job at The News & Observer, a major, Pulitzer-prize-winning newspaper where I earned a decent salary and reached 150,000 to 200,000 readers on any given day. 

Photo illustration, © Elena Ray / Shutterstock.com
Photo illustration, © Elena Ray / Shutterstock.com

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The decision was a long time coming — my whole adult life, really. Before I ever started my first newspaper job in 2000, I’d wanted to help people explore deeper things than just tax policy, or crime, or environmental regulation. These just skim the surface of who we are as humans: why we share or hoard, why we hurt or protect one another, what we owe to Mother Earth.

What I found as a newspaper reporter was that I had no choice but to skim the surface of things. There’s not enough space to go deeper, but, more importantly, deeper takes you into hypothesis, not fact — and hypothesis is a leap of faith. What you find when you go deeper depends a lot on the gear you’re wearing when you dive. I’m cloaked in Bible stories and Christian tradition, and therefore I live in hope that there’s a Creator and that this God is working quietly to heal the world.

I read recently in Psalm 27: 

“The Lord is my light and my salvation —
 whom shall I fear?
 The Lord is the stronghold of my life —
of whom shall I be afraid?”

These are pointed rhetorical questions, considering that I say I believe God is at work making things right. I’ll tell you whom I fear: booking agents who ignore my e-mails, so that I spend days upon days working to set-up a show where my four bandmates and I will split $100 in payment, if we’re lucky, and that’s not accounting for the $50 in gas we’ll spend getting there; music and literary critics who, even after I’ve incorporated loads of feedback from friends and acquaintances – other professional writers and musicians – will still find flaws in my work and color how the public receives it; my mortgage lender, utilities, and credit-card company who all want to get paid and don’t understand that I’ve spent the past year working on a book and an album of music that have cost me thousands of dollars and months of unpaid time – money that I’m now trying to recover by selling these projects.

So many people have lost their homes to foreclosure these past few years, and though, thanks to my wife’s salary and the freelance receipts I cobble together, we’re not close to that, it’s hard not to worry that I’ll have to give up this freelance creative life in order to keep our home. David’s Psalm again seems pertinent:

“One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life.”

My house is the Lord’s, and here I’m all too aware of my utter dependence upon God as Creator and Sustainer. For better or worse, we try to keep the kids as unaware as possible. Ironically, I long for the same illusion I had before I quit – the illusion that most people must maintain in order to get through the day: I am in control; I take care of myself; I have a good job, and that will sustain me.

Watching my colleagues laid off, fiscal quarter after fiscal quarter, certainly helped to disrupt that illusion. But, in the end, it was my desire to drag up the fullness of human life – the beauty and the sadness – that led me to quit newspapers in favor of more creative writing. For example, it seems to me that one of the fundamental truths about humanity is that we’re made by a God who can feel very close and very far away at the same time. How does a journalist write about that? That’s for poets and songwriters and essayists: the people society doesn’t pay very well for their work.

And so, yes, I’m afraid, as I try to make songs and to craft prose to figure out who I am as a human being and to help others do the same. I’m afraid, every day, of failure. But I want to have faith. I want to believe that we are in the hands of a loving God. And here’s what David says that looks like:

“At his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy; I will sing and make music to the Lord.”

In a very real way, to make music – to create art in response to the beauty of Creation – is to believe.

Jesse James DeConto spent 11 years as a newspaper reporter and editor with the Xenia (Ohio) Daily Gazette, thePortsmouth (N.H.) Herald and the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. He now works as a contributing editor for Prism magazine and a regular contributor to The Christian Century. He blogs at http://jessejamesdeconto.com.

Photo illustration, © Elena Ray | View Portfolio / Shutterstock.com

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