Phyllis Beveridge Nissila
The “High Art” of Our “Personal Hero’s Quest in Christ?”
The discussion in my class last night on the general theme of “Christianity and Literature: Truth and Story” (class #4–“The Hard Work of Having a Hero: Models in Christian Literature”) had to do, in part, with what the speaker defines as the “high art” of literature, what’s trending, and lacking, specifically in Christian literature of late.
There are plenty of fiction books on the shelves of Christian book stores, to be sure, but his reference was the body of work that includes poetry, plays, and novels that not only inform but can also, as the reader interacts with meaning, transform him or her by exposing the minds and hearts of its protagonists, their struggles and joys. And not all of them are found the bookshelves specifically marked “Christian Literature.”
These are stories that intersect with the spiritual, literature that steps off of stock and genre-bound plot lines to venture outside of the work itself, as I put it to my own literature students, and onto paths of universal themes, narratives common to every era and people group.
As a believer, I would add, narratives that are variations on the themes of life through the lens of the Story Teller of story tellers, Metaphorist of metaphorists, Savior, Healer, and Redeemer no matter what the tale, who the protagonist. I am citing God, of course, Whose Spirit abides in those who invite Him in, ever-present to aid us in unpacking the meaning in our personal quest for truth, and everybody, truth be told, redeemed or rebellious, is on that journey.
It is in the body of literary works, including that which graces the pages of the Bible, we are entertained and informed, yes, but more importantly, if we allow it, we are challenged, shocked, surprised, outed, confronted, affirmed, and invited to examine our own minds and hearts for parallels and pitfalls, just as are those who populate the pages inside the covers–and in-between the lines–of some Shakespearean drama, Wendell Berry poem, Joseph Campbell quest, or Davidic Psalm expressing the highs and lows of every human condition, no manner a given human’s status. And such news–and Good News–is even found in some of the books on the, specifically marked, Christian shelves.
Where’s the Good Stuff Today?
A part of the after-lecture discussion centered on why there seems to be a lack of such Christian works, just now. I have a personal theory that it has to do with the monoculture of religious institutions where form often supersedes freedom, as it were, for various reasons, making it hard to grow much past spiritual childhood, fed mostly the “milk of the Word” with limited “meat” available.
To put it another way, greater spiritual expression is easily suppressed, whether in corporate church life at large where there seems little room anymore inside the institution (of any denomination), let alone inside the books sold in the vestibules, for much “fresh manna” and where the ministering is usually only in the hands of a few.
In this situation, we risk, in my view, limiting the equipping of the Body of Christ sufficiently for the work we are each called to do back home and in the work world.
However, when the Holy Spirit is not quenched due to tradition, logistics, or some business model of church growth mandating strict conformity (its goal more “nickels and noses” than imparting that equipment we need with which to more effectively minister during the week), we are enriched by variations on spiritual themes through the lens’ of varied skills and talents (the Holy Spirit having gifted everyone “severally” as He does). But that’s another topic for a different post…
What I took from last night’s class and share here is another way to look at “high art,” this, in the flesh-and-blood form, in real lives–yours and mine–where each of us is the hero of our own quest, Christ, the theme.
My point is best illustrated by what happened when the discussion was over, a moment where perhaps I saw the initiation of the first stage of the classic–and in this case Christian–quest pattern in the life of a young man sitting next to me. Maybe. Maybe not. But as most “calls” are more daily than drama, it inspired me and might you as well, in what might be its quiet power.
Did I witness His “Call?”
A young man, I’d say early twenties, came in late and sat next to me in the back row. I hadn’t seen him at the previous lectures. He listened, took a few notes on his electronic device or perhaps looked something up.
When people began to leave, he turned to me and asked why I was there, so I explained I teach literature, study the Bible, and I love the topic.
I asked him if he is a student at the College, he replied no. He was, just now working to earn some money. And, oh by the way, he has learned how to play the guitar and he is involved in music, as well. Mostly, he said, he needs to work, just now…but he really liked what the speaker was saying…
I asked if he is a believer, a Christian.
He answered with a slight hesitancy, I thought, but said that yes, he was a Christian, he believed in God. He didn’t seem enthusiastic about it, but was still pleasantly open to sharing this information (so many in that age group on a university campus these days would scoff at that question, or hem and haw, or even become offended that you might ask!).
He kept looking at me as if there was something more on his mind. Whatever was, or wasn’t, the case, I had this idea for him, so I shared it: “Well, it’s from all of these things happening for you just now, and your being here for this presentation, you can now start crafting the ‘high art’ of you own life. It could all start here.”
We smiled, packed up our own things, and left, each to his/her own next stage of our day, either to its reflective post script (me) or perhaps, in the young man’s case, to the next stage of his personal hero’s quest: the journey following the initial call (if, indeed, this was some kind of call for him), with its trials, tribulations, and challenges, whether physical, mental, or spiritual, on the way to transformation.
Perhaps, I thought further, this may have been some kind of epiphanous moment for him and not just in my imagination. It reminded me of another possible moment of sudden awareness that occurred once when I was on a train trip and we passed a little scene alongside the tracks. Maybe I had witnessed something like that then, too. But if not, and in both cases, I share it for its worth in highlighting how extraordinary events are sometimes, maybe even often, birthed in very ordinary days. And we don’t often know it–or appreciate it fully–just then.
And I thought even further: Just as Jesus personified, literally, God’s quest for us–His redemptive part in it foreshadowed and illustrated in the literature called the Bible–we are also the literal personification of the potential “high art,” if you will, of our unique “story” that can, by the variation of our life’s work, inform and even transform others who might be looking inside, so to speak.
We might not write our story, per se, or it may never appear in anybody else’s play, poem, or novel, but it can still inspire, comfort, and guide via what work and craft we find to do at home, work, and elsewhere, however public or private our efforts will be, and this part is very important: whether or not our ministry is part of the corporate church culture where many are called but few are allowed to serve.
By our personal living, breathing form of literature so to speak, we can perhaps give others a little more to think about on their own road, and not only by our successes but also by how we handle our inevitable conflicts, which any literature writer, teacher, or critic will emphasize, is one of the most important elements of the written kind of high art as well.
In this regard, then, I’m not so worried about the lack of novels and poems and plays that was part of the conversation at class, as I am that you and I do not appreciate the “stage” we’ve been given on which to act out the art of our real lives, flesh-and-blood art forms that any and all we come into contact can “read,” and not just a literary few–or a ministering few–will allow.
Thus, I encourage you to carry on in your spiritual adventure (perhaps acting as one of the quest pattern “helpers and guides” who comes along just now for you?).
You never know who will be “reading you” today, in how you handle your successes and failures, but most importantly, how, in all, you shine the light of Christ.
For you may be the only Good News some other, or others, might be able to read, just now, on their own hero’s quest.