An Artistic Focus

I found myself sitting across from a new friend for lunch the other day. I’ve been in Atlanta for only a week. Everything, really, feels new. Along with the place comes a strangeness of culture, people, accent, even life situation. While this fall is far from my first season of diving into academia, it is the start of a new leg of that journey far from any community that I’ve known.

And with this new season comes a predominant sense of anxiety. Newness, strangeness, is stressful to humans in general as created creatures of habit. Without context for the world around us, we enter into a state that is constantly “on” – taking as much of the environment in as quickly as possible – in an attempt to make sense of it. We do so as a means of trying to regain a sense of control.

While transition is stressful, there is an openness present in the person that is otherwise closed off. The expectation is that there is no expectation. Most, if not all, of our categories and filters through which to see the world have been reset.

Familiarity can breed contempt. Without intention reflection, it can dispose us in this way.  We allow ourselves to be swept along with the rhythms of life, trying to get through the days and weeks to something we’re looking forward to.

To be sure, there is significance and beauty to engaging in regularly repeating activities and disciplines. Just like there is a reason for an athlete to exercise outside of a match, there are reasons for a person to practice for what they hope to be or where they hope to perform.

But for many of us, it can become easy to slide into doing the motions. The meaning fades. The ritual becomes dry and hollow. It is in these moments that we need a shaking-up of sorts.

This was one of the reasons why I found myself at lunch after Ross had found me wandering around the lobby of his church the first Sunday I was in Atlanta.

The thing is, Ross is an artist by trade. A graphic designer more precisely, and a good one at that. However, Ross’ passion rests in helping others visualize their role in the world, often with a theological bent to it. He uses his talent as a means to start the conversation. Naturally enough, it wasn’t long before the soon-to-be-seminarian and the artist’s talk would turn toward that general direction.

Ross was halfway through his salad bowl, munching contentedly. We had been discussing the direction our lives had gone. We mused over places where we thought they were headed as well. Several people had recently connected with Ross because of his art and wanted to begin working with him as well. Ross’ eyes lit up as he speculated what the future would bring.

At one point, I remarked, “Has it ever occurred to you that we need you to help us pray?”

Ross stopped chewing.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Well,” I began, setting aside my fork and scratching my chin, “Would you say that the arts intentionally portray something – anything – which is filtered or distorted or focused in such a manner that some message is conveyed?”

Ross tapped his finger to his lips, his eyes gazing beyond me in a pensive stare.

“Yeah, but what are you getting at?”

The poet Emily Dickinson once wrote a poem that advised its audience that one should “Tell all the truth but tell it slant / [Lest] every man be blind.”[1] Those tasked with telling the truth might find that the truth, when presented in the same way, may be so familiar to their audience that their listeners dismiss it, regardless of whether it have the significance of a horoscope or a great work of literature. Something as revolutionary and radical as the truth can be glossed over for a lie which “tickles many ears” and enthralls the masses simply because it is so familiar.

Simone Weil, on a related note, once observed that a form of loving something is fixing one’s complete and utter attention on it. Furthermore, praying is simply the act of paying attention to one’s surroundings, oneself, and to God.[2]

When we lose our expectation and openness, allowing familiarity to dull our senses, we need someone else to remind us again. We need others to recall our sense of wonder, of our reverence, and of our devotion when the motions seem to us as good enough. We need the artist to wrestle with our perceived reality and ways of being in order to communicate some element of it – the good, the bad, and everything in between – even though their manner of doing so may shake us to our cores and make us uncomfortable with where, who, or even what we are.

It is, I think, one of the reasons why the Psalmist invites their audience to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”[3]

It is for the same reason why they also cry out in Psalm 88 in their anguish, failing to resolve their lament like any other Psalm that we have in the canon.[4]

It is for the same reason why the prophets used such wild imagery, like Malachi warning the priests that God would smear fecal matter on their faces for their tepidness and corruption.[5]

The voice of the artist invites us, through disrupting our daily patterns and our assumptions about who and what faith ought to be about, to return our focus back to God and reengage with him in all our humanness.

The voice of the artist, whatever their medium, has the ability to invite us to come. To see. To experience this God of ours.

They invite us to pay attention to the mystery and wonder of the divine.

They help us to pray.

At lunch, I looked at Ross, spreading my arms wide.

“You have a gift from God, for the people of God.”

He smiled. “Thanks be to God.”

[1] Emily Dickinson, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

[2] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace.

[3] Psalm 38:4, New Revised Standard Version.

[4] Ps. 88.

[5] Mal. 2:3.