Coming Back, Going Forward

Of all the good old literary games, one of the most well-respected is Find the Archetype. It consists of taking a character, proving that he is like other characters who filled similar roles in their own stories, and declaring him an Archetype. It’s a simple game – there are only about six stories ever told, and you learn to see through the masks pretty quick – but it can be entertaining and may even see you through college English.

There is a special version of Find the Archetype played by Christians. Its purpose is to find the Messiah Archetype or, more casually, the Jesus-figure. One of the first proofs of the Messiah Archetype is a return from the dead. Returning from the dead is a common trope, from fairy tales to fantasy and from folk tales to science fiction; it’s a far easier commonality to find than, say, the Virgin Birth. (Not that this is impossible. Star Wars did it. It was stupid, but they did do it.) And because the Resurrection makes the Gospel the Gospel, and “He is risen!” was more significant than “He is born,” rising from the dead is the most important commonality to find, too.

Yet I am struck more by the difference between Christ’s Resurrection and the return of Aslan (Gandalf, Harry Potter …) than I am by the similarity. The apostles spoke of the Resurrection as a singular event; to take one example – from Acts 26 – Paul calls Jesus the first to rise from the dead. And we need to remember – Paul certainly would not have forgotten – that in the Gospels alone we have the raising of Lazarus, the synagogue ruler’s daughter, the widow’s son, and the “holy people” on Good Friday. Long before the time of Jesus, Elijah and Elisha also raised the dead.

And yet Jesus is the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep,” the firstfruits of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15). The difference to be drawn here is this: The raising of Lazarus and the others was the reversal of death, a return to the life (and body) that we all have known; the raising of Christ was the resurrection from death – the body raised in glory, an onward journey into a life of which we have not even dreamed. “For the trumpet will sound,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”

We find some illustration of the change in the Gospels; Jesus famously declared that “the children of the resurrection” do not marry and cannot die (Luke 20). And there is a suggestion, however nebulous, of the nature of the resurrection in the Easter accounts. In an odd way, there is more continuity between the natural body and the resurrected body than might be imagined. Jesus invited Thomas to touch the nail marks in His hands and put his hand into His side; His wounds were healed but visible still. There may be others who will not lose their scars, or want to.

In a larger, and even stranger, way, there is less continuity than would be easily supposed. One of the mysteries of the Resurrection is the persistent trouble Christ’s followers had in recognizing Him. Mary Magdalene didn’t know Him at first, and neither did the men on the road to Emmaus, and there is something halting and almost fearful in the disciples’ recognition of Jesus by the Sea of Tiberius. As a final point, Christ ate after He was resurrected. And I know this sounds boring, but it means that all that talk about feasts in the kingdom of God wasn’t metaphorical, and I dare any of you to tell me that you don’t care.

The reversal of death is very different from resurrection. To come back from death is not the same as going forward from it. All the Messiah archetypes I know of are returns, not the forging of bright frontiers beyond death and merely natural life. Speculative fiction is bound only by imagination, but even artists have trouble imagining resurrection. And this resurrection, almost blinding in its glory – it is Christ’s triumph, and our hope.

Bad Religion

If it’s bad art, it’s bad religion, no matter how pious the subject.

The release of A Wrinkle In Time has brought this quotation to the surface. It sounds profound and is, I think, deeply wrong, but I don’t want to attack a lone, disconnected sentence. It would be better to return the sentence to its proper context, attempt to understand it, and then attack it.

The statement is taken from Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. After some meandering, L’Engle expands the idea:

Basically there can be no categories as “religious” art and “secular” art, because all true art is incarnational, and therefore “religious”.

To understand what she means by incarnational, we must backtrack to an earlier passage, a sort of extended analogy that compares artists to the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation (it sounds less silly when L’Engle says it, but never doubt: It is really, in absolute and incontrovertible truth, just as silly): 

[The] artist must be obedient to the work … I believe that each work of art … comes to the artist and says, “Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.” And the artist either says, “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” and willingly becomes the bearer of the work, or refuses; but the obedient response is not necessarily a conscious one. 

The pithiest summation of all this is that art is religion. A more difficult, and perhaps truer, summation is that art is inherently religious because to create it is, consciously or unconsciously, a religious act – an act of obedience to the divine or, at least, to the transcendent. And this brings us back again, circuitously but logically, to the original statement that to be guilty of bad art is to be guilty of bad religion.

Make no mistake: The guilt is real. L’Engle lightly comments in Walking on Water that the writer of a “shoddy novel” has “reject[ed] the obedience, tak[en] the easy way out.” So to write a shoddy novel is a moral failing. Your bad prose flows from your moral weakness and the holes in your plot darkly reflect the hole in your character.

The equation between bad religion and bad art, and between moral failure and artistic failure, is false. It is flat nonsense to believe that a bad story must come from disobedience to “the work” and never consider that it probably comes from the eternal gremlins of artistic endeavors, lack of time and lack of skill. I put great emphasis on skill, more than on any nebulously-rendered obedience; it’s real and practical and necessary. In art, as in sports, no emotion, belief, or effort is enough in itself. You must have the skill, too.

Art is not an obedient response to “the work” that, L’Engle imagines, somehow already exists and wants to be incarnated; it’s not a religious act. Art is work, in the same way that cooking a meal or building a bridge is work, and like all work, it can be done badly or it can be done well. Certainly the religion of the art can influence its quality. But to make the quality of a work’s religion synonymous with the quality of its art is as wrongheaded as judging love by its poetry. (And if we did judge love by its poetry, we would know from the greetings cards we have all given and received that the world is a cold, dark, loveless place.)

There is excellent art that is bad religion. There is bad art that is excellent religion. Religion and art are not so closely bound as to make one bad or good as the other is bad or good. To think they are is bad religion.