Distracted by Beauty

God created and saw that it was good. But since then things have been more ambiguous. Good and evil, clean and unclean, truth and lies, blessing and curse, prophets and false prophets: We are left to sort out this material world with a prayer, a promise of the Spirit's guidance, and a tradition shaped by people who were perhaps just as confused as we are.

Are cultural expressions only holy if the Word is spelled out in big block letters? Or is the Word, present at the creation of all that is, whispering and shouting in all subsequent acts of creation, needing no alphabet or subtitles?

In the name of God, our God, in the name of Christ, our Christ: Christians have gilded cathedrals, sent buttresses flying, frescoed and sculpted and painted and stained glass. And they have built churches with walls as square and plain as dogma, with clear windows, the better to see God, undistracted by beauty. Or they have designed sturdy, graceful furniture, raised barns, and molded tools that were odes to a practical God (form meets function in a sort of ecstatic prayer).

Christians have refused to sing hymns and burned rock-and-roll records because they were too worldly. They have composed symphonies and oratories and sweet gospel ballads and praise-Jesus thrash metal and defiant spirituals. They have composed poetry, written novels, produced morality plays, and burned books.

To be Christian and to be an artist is to stand in ambiguity—called to create, but not to make idols of our creations. To love God is to love the world but not be defined by it. But, as Annie Dillard writes, "What can any artist set on fire but his or her world?...What can an artist use but materials, such as they are?" There is no hard and fast rule for the point at which an artist ceases to mold materials and becomes molded by them. This is as true for popular culture as it is for the classical arts.

BUT WHY RISK this intimacy with the world? Why not cut off from human culture, or at least from the popular forms that seem too fast, too commercial, too fragmented, too insidious, too manipulative? For some, perhaps that is the right thing to do, the way to hold on to what is holy, to nurture that which can't be condensed to information flowing through electronic equipment, to images flashing on a screen. But isn't there a call for some to proclaim mystery and incarnation everywhere, even among (or despite) the idols we've created out of celebrity and technology?

There are critics and cynics who would say that true creativity and true art—never mind the sacred—have nothing to do with popular culture. But in practice, culture is fluid, shifting, high to low, low to high, sacred to profane and back again.

"Artists are witnesses of their time. They reflect the events swirling around them," Fritz Eichenberg wrote. Popular culture is not (as some might have us believe) all of reality. But it is part of the swirl of our time. And both faith and art work with and within the medium of time (even as both call out to the truths that are timeless).

It's not that there isn't need for discernment or critique; but it is not an end to itself, once and for all. Like creativity, critique is human, fragmented, getting part of the picture, but never the whole. As Flannery O'Connor pointed out, "[T]aste is a relative matter. There are some who will find almost everything in bad taste, from spitting in the street to Christ's association with Mary Magdalene." Values and taste preferences can't contain God anymore than idols carved of stone.

So here we are, where those who have heard God's call have always been, sitting in the desert (albeit a cluttered postmodern one) without a map. But we do have stories of those who came before: Miriam dancing and singing in ecstasy on the shores of the Red Sea, David dancing naked before the Ark. Jeremiah and Ezekiel prophesying through street theater and Jesus telling stories. How will we proclaim the Word?

Julie Polter is an associate editor of Sojourners.

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