An Acquittal

Dostoevsky’s Devils is a 700-page epic of spiritual lawlessness, conniving, and singularly poor decisions. For most of the novel, this plays out in long conversations, awkward domestic scenes, and some very unfortunate social events. At the climax, everything joins in a conflagration of murders and suicides, with two or three natural deaths for variation in tragedy. Such is Dostoevsky’s genius that it scrapes above melodrama to meaning.

To end a story in a general slaughter of the principals is an established tradition. It is dignified, though not justified, by a notable presence in classic literature. As a rule, I don’t care for it. Such endings usually feel rushed, as though the author killed off the characters as the quickest expedient to ending the story. They may even be read as lazy. You could craft an unexpected, yet logical and satisfying, resolution of the characters’ internal and external struggles. Or you could just kill everyone.

The worst aspect of the “everyone dies” resolution is that it is so purposelessly bleak. The point goes beyond any objection that the story is dark, or depressing. It is the meaninglessness of it that is insupportable. If all the story’s conflict and energy simply terminates in a general slaughter, what was the point of it? The characters may as well have not bothered.

Dostoevsky’s Devils entirely acquits itself of any charge of being rushed or lazy, and not because it is 700 pages long. The forces in the story, at work from the beginning, slowly but inevitably plunge it down into violence. You knew that this, more or less, was how it would end. Devils does not escape the meaninglessness so crushing in similarly violent resolutions. It makes no effort to escape. Every death is senseless. There is no heroism, nothing achieved or saved. The villains win thoroughly, and even they gain nothing. With grim irony, Dostoevsky allows his villains to succeed in their schemes while failing in their objects. Most stories work in dichotomy: someone has to win and someone else has to lose. In Devils the villains fail, and still everyone else loses.

What redeems all this is the force of Dostoevsky’s ideas. The novel is sometimes labeled a critique of atheism, and that is true enough. Its full scope, however, is broader and subtler. The crucial dynamic of the novel is the strange, half-contemptuous affinity between the young radicals and the rich, respectable people in power. These, together, are Dostoevsky’s devils. The revolutionaries were active in mischief, and the people in authority complaisant to it. The radicals were declared atheists. The people in authority went to church, or at least made profession of some vague God. But they had no spiritual or intellectual anchor. They simply drifted – ever attracted by new ideas but incapable of serious examination, impressed by boldness but unable to hold conviction of their own. Indifference is as fatal to the soul as disbelief. The devils were not all atheists, but they were all godless.

This, then, is the true theme of Devils: what happens when people are left to themselves, without God. All the senseless sorrow of Devils, the oppressive futility, the blundering crimes that are at once cruel and stupid – this is what happens when God is left out of life. There is no point to the miserable episodes unleashed in the chaos of disbelief, but that is Dostoevsky’s point. “God is necessary and so must exist,” one atheist confesses. “But I know that He doesn’t and can’t.” I have no doubt that Dostoevsky believed in God. But Devils is not, at heart, a statement that God is real. It is a statement that God is necessary.

Devils is a little too heavy, a little too dark. But I understand it, and I can appreciate even those aspects I don’t enjoy. I still believe that a general slaughter of principal characters is a poor resolution to most stories. But one of the curious facts about art is that even the worst ideas are, very occasionally, done right.

Happiness is an Aesthetic

There is a scene in Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday where an English detective, impersonating an anarchist, is joined in a “foul tavern” by another English detective, impersonating a nihilistic German professor. The second undercover detective ordered a glass of milk, in keeping with the habits of the Professor de Worms. But he rejected, with contempt, his companion’s suggestion that he actually drink the milk. “We’re all Christians in this room, though perhaps,” he added, glancing around at the reeling crowd, “not strict ones.” Then he ordered a beer.

The part about everyone being a Christian was, of course, ironic. Even a hundred years ago, when people easily believed in Christian nations, they knew the difference between a national religion and a personal conviction. The beer was not ironic. Chesterton really believed that to be a Christian, rather than a nihilistic German, was a reason to drink beer rather than milk. Because (such was Chesterton’s conviction) beer is good.

One of Chesterton’s most striking characteristics, as a writer, was how he related religion to pleasure, and pleasure to morality. He expressed it once in a rhyme written in praise of inns, “Where the bacon’s on the rafter / And the wine is in the wood, / And God that made good laughter / Has seen that they are good.”

The last phrase is an allusion to Genesis, where God made the world and saw that it was good. It recalls, too, one of the loveliest images in Scripture, that of God creating the earth “while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy.” This idea that the physical creation is a good thing, a thing to rejoice over, suffuses Chesterton’s works. He saw the goodness everywhere. It’s a bad old world in many ways; popular catchphrases aside, there is nothing unprecedented about a pandemic. But Chesterton never got over the thought that it’s a good world, too, and it is pretty wonderful, after all, that the sky is blue and the grass is green.

If good meals and good laughter have the Creator’s approval, that is a call to enjoyment, and also to gratitude. Oscar Wilde once gibed that sunsets are not popular because you can’t pay for them. Chesterton retorted that you can pay for them – you can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde. “Surely,” he wrote, “one might pay for extraordinary joy in ordinary morals.” There have always been people who take virtue as a reason to reject material pleasures. It was Chesterton’s happier analysis to take acceptance of material pleasures as a reason for virtue.

Chesterton always tended to happiness. It is rare to find an author who joined so naturally religion and the goodness of the world, or whose embrace of pleasure was so full-hearted and so wholesome. Gritty realism, so-called, always has an audience, and darkness is both a point of view and an aesthetic. But happiness is also an aesthetic, and often a soothing one. Happiness rooted in the ordinary, as Chesterton’s was, is particularly soothing. We grow distracted, anxious, ungrateful; the news is like a storm on the horizon. It is good to remember what we still have, all the small pleasures and ordinary joys – and God that made good laughter has seen that they are good.

The Decision of Meaning

The happiest person in Romeo and Juliet is Rosaline, who had the good sense to be uninvolved. Romeo spent his initial scenes declaring her matchless beauty, his undying love, that there would never be another woman for him, etc., up until he met Juliet and immediately began saying all those things about her instead. Romeo needed some sort of productive occupation. I would like to think that Shakespeare presaged Juliet with Rosaline as an ironic comment on the transitory nature of even passionate feeling. More likely he included Rosaline simply because the 1562 poem Romeus and Juliet did.

I take Rosaline to be the inheritance of an older source, thoughtlessly carried over, because she is out of place within the new work. Romeo and Juliet is not ironic in its tone. It takes itself and its lovers seriously. That Romeo replaces Rosaline as casually as people replace light bulbs undermines the love story. None of his dramatic declarations of undying love were true. He believed them, but they weren’t true. That they become true when he starts spouting them about Juliet can only be taken on faith, and some of us are skeptics. Yet I don’t think, given the tenor of the play, that we are meant to doubt.

I also think that, whether Shakespeare intended it or not, Romeo’s histrionics over Rosaline add a grain of salt to his histrionics over Juliet. The war over authorial intent has been waged and, for the moment, decided. A story’s interpretation is not presumed to be dictated by the author’s intentions. As much as I approve, I willingly admit the merits of the defeated idea. There is a kind of fairness in giving the creator the decision in the meaning of the work. And literary interpretation could do with more objectivity. That is the inescapable conclusion of sitting in college literature courses, listening to people give suspiciously faddish interpretations of books you suspect they merely skimmed.

But although it would be the well-deserved death of a thousand lazy essays, I can’t give the decision of meaning to creators. They’re interpreting, too. The literary evolution of Romeo and Juliet proves the point. Shakespeare based his play on Arthur Brooke’s Romeus and Juliet. The story is essentially the same in both works; Shakespeare repeated Brooke in every event of importance. Yet if Shakespeare took it for a love story, Brooke took it for a morality tale. Brooke, who probably did not suffer fools, advised his readers that the “most unhappy death” of Romeus and Juliet stood as an example to them of what comes of “unhonest desire”, neglecting the authority of parents, and getting your advice from drunken gossips and superstitious friars (“the naturally fit instruments of unchastity”). (Perhaps Brooke was harsh toward superstitious friars. Nevertheless, I give him credit for hating Friar Lawrence.)

We are all interpreters of stories, the storytellers as much as the rest of us. The special power of creators is in deciding what will be interpreted, not how it should be. Readers sometimes work out a story to its implications farther and more clearly than the author himself. A story stands as it was created. It is not, in the end, what the author meant but what he said, and that anyone can know.

That requires, however, reading the book. It’s only fair.

An Icon of Melodrama

If you consider the facts from a certain distance – objectively, even analytically – you would have to conclude that the image of a woman tied to the railroad tracks is grim. Tragic, even, if the evident intention is realized. We take it to be comical, but we’re not really to blame. The damsel in distress, tied to the railroad tracks, is an icon of melodrama burlesqued into a joke. Even more, it is a symbol of cartoon villainy and melodramatic storytelling.

The melodramatic, in modern use, is drama so excessive it becomes absurd. The phenomenon was wonderfully expressed by Oscar Wilde in his jibe that no one without a heart of stone could read the death of Little Nell and not laugh. But though it gets no respect now, melodrama was a reigning art form in its day. Because we are interested in all art forms here – at least all the art forms we are presently thinking of; don’t test us – we’re going to consider the most marked characteristics of melodrama. Hat tip to Robert M. Lewis’ From Traveling Show to Vaudeville, an excellent review of American entertainment.

Melodrama was, first of all, sensationalist. Well, yes, you say. By definition. And this is so. But melodrama brewed a distinct flavor of sensationalism. Melodrama was firmly grounded in the present day and in next-door locales. There was no once upon a time, no exotic, far-off lands. Nor were there the more or less than human – elves or aliens, superheroes or sorcerers. Melodrama was populated by at least the types of real people, cads and country boys and salesgirls.

And that made it, perhaps, all the more wrenching when drama burst through the familiar with violence, both literal and metaphorical. Improbable dangers and extravagant disasters charged melodrama. Acts of God, bloody deeds of villainy, and blind, mechanical violence were all conjured to create excitement and robust physicality. Think of unpleasant yet unlikely ways to die, all of which require vigorous action to escape, inflict, or both. The writers of the melodramas did. That is why their heroes braved bullets and earthquakes, and their heroines were pushed off bridges and thrown beneath freight elevators and, yes, tied to railroad tracks.

Yet the danger that stalked the heroines of melodrama was not only physical. It was also moral. The popular melodrama Rosina Meadows (1841) was the tragedy of a young woman robbed of her virtue by an urbane scoundrel. (To catch a little of the spirit of melodrama: Both of them die in the last scene – Rosina for no particular reason, her erstwhile lover at the hands of her avenging father.) Rosina exemplifies the idea of young female innocence menaced by male villainy, ever-recurrent in melodrama. For all its full-hearted plunge into violence and crime, melodrama was intensely moralistic. So was its audience. The playwright Porter Emerson Browne marked with vague fondness how devotedly melodrama’s spectators hated the villain and loved the hero and heroine. The journalist Rollin Lynde Hart marked it with acid.

Doubtless there is a great deal of acid that might be spilled on an art form symbolized by a man in a black suit tying a woman to the railroad tracks. Absurdity, histrionics, and stereotypes thread through the image. But there must be something to be said for it as well. It is a striking image, and an indelible one. And if we could receive it as artlessly as the Bowery audiences once did, we might even see pathos within the schmaltz, and human longing beyond the absurdity.

What the People Want

You have to take success where it comes, even if it happens to come on Netflix. That can be a little galling if what you really wanted was success on the silver screen, all across the United States. I learned that from Martin Scorsese, who has received a great deal of acclaim for The Irishman but wanted, in addition, a good, long theater run.

There was no room for him in the theater. This, at least, is Scorsese’s read on the situation. As he explained,

[T]he fact is that the screens in most multiplexes are crowded with franchise pictures.

And if you’re going to tell me that it’s simply a matter of supply and demand and giving the people what they want, I’m going to disagree. It’s a chicken-and-egg issue. If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing.

Scorsese is making two points here. Both are interesting; one is correct. He is saying, first of all, that franchise movies are not overwhelming our theaters because that is simply what people want. This statement rides on the implicit belief that the public taste is broader than that, that people can – and would, if Hollywood chose to offer them – enjoy films that break the ascendant formulas.

That belief does Scorsese credit. In the first place, it’s a compliment to his audience. In the second, it lays hands on a critical truth. Hollywood makes so much of its franchises and its formulas because they’re safe, not because they’re all the movie-going public wants. The studios are gambling millions on every film; naturally they are averse to unique formulations that have not been tested against public taste. But people are ready to enjoy, and to pay for, more than the current fads.

Still, it must be granted that the franchises and formulas are safe because people really do like them. Here we reach Scorsese’s second point. Scorsese argues that people want franchise films because they are given franchise films. No doubt Hollywood does help to create the demand it supplies. No doubt it doesn’t do so to the extent that Scorsese suggests. It is, as the cliche goes, a free country. The paying public is constantly allowing movies to hit the theater and flop. Why not the movies that so grieve cultured filmmakers?

Because people want those movies. At least, they want that sort of movie, and they will forgive failures in art to get it. This is a truth that critics, and artists with the souls of critics, have a tendency to miss: In terms of enjoyment, type matters as much as quality. If it’s comedy you want, then even bad comedy will do more for you than tragedy. The popularity of the franchise doesn’t prove that the movies are good. It doesn’t even prove that the public thinks the movies are good. But it does prove that the public wants them.

It is very profitable to find what people want and sell it to them. The whole aim of the franchise is to give the people what they want, and it hits the mark more often than not. Scorsese is wrong to believe that Hollywood creates the demand by supplying it. But he is right to believe that people want more than the franchise and the well-tried formula, that there is space yet for the different and bold. The public always holds surprises. You never know what people might like, or love, and even – for that is the way of things – turn into a new franchise.

Art Under Negotiation

One of the purposes of this site is to explore the meeting of Christianity with culture broadly, and with art particularly, whether that meeting is synthesis, negotiation, or conflict. That exploration grows more and more relevant as our society transforms into a post-Christian culture. Still, the meeting of Christianity and art is as old as the Church Universal. It is interesting to consider how the early Christians made their own negotiations in a pre-Christian culture.

Ancient Christian art, some of it dating from the second century, is preserved in the Catacombs.1In the 1800s, when the serious scientific study of the Catacombs began, the oldest artwork was dated to the first century AD. But modern estimates place it a century later. The Catacombs, as you know, is the collective name given to a web of underground Christian cemeteries excavated around Rome when the emperors were still pagan. Christianity was, in those days, an infant religion in an old civilization. The Greeks and the Romans had brought to a high state the arts of sculpture, painting, and architecture. These arts served causes of which the Christians could not have approved: the glorification of pagan emperors and pagan gods, an endless proliferation of images and temples. Yet Christians brought those arts, as they were able, down into the Catacombs, in frescoes and paintings and sarcophagi.

It’s not surprising. Humans must have art. Humans must especially have art in their sacred places. What is more notable is that the early Christians borrowed not only Rome’s art forms but, to a limited extent, its pagan imagery. The classic image of Orpheus taming the wild animals frequently appears in the Catacombs, doubtless as a type of Christ.2W.H. Withrow, The Catacombs of Rome (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1888), 266. Other pagan representations include Ulysses and Mercury, curiously placed in the scene of Elijah’s ascension into heaven.3Withrow, 267-68. In the Early Church, Ulysses was taken as an allegory for the soul’s journey home. There is no allegorical explanation for Mercury. There is some evidence, however, of pagan images being hidden or destroyed, indicating that not all Christians of that early time were sanguine about this artistic syncretism.4Ibid.

Symbols were very common in the Catacombs, etched onto countless graves. Some, such as the fish or the Christogram, were exclusively Christian in their significance. Others, like the ship, the crown, and the palm branch, were shared with the dominant pagan culture of Rome. As Withrow comments in his book, however, the common pagan symbols of serpent and dog are largely rejected, with the former appearing only in depictions of Eve’s temptation and the latter used only as an accessory in hunting scenes.5Withrow, 298. Dogs were symbolic of fidelity in Roman culture. It is easy to understand why the serpent was rejected, and perhaps Withrow is right in his speculation that early Christians shared the Jewish conception of dogs as unclean. Whatever the reason, the pertinent fact is that Christian art did not include all Roman motifs.

The symbols of the Catacombs encapsulate the early Christian use of the art that, created by pagans, surrounded them. They added much that was new, and infused much that was old with new meaning (the laurel wreath did not mean quite the same thing to Roman pagans as it did to Roman Christians). They retained cultural symbols and even nakedly pagan imagery. And some elements of pagan art they excised entirely. (Withrow also notices the far greater modesty of human figures portrayed in the Christian Catacombs than in pagan art.6Withrow, 264.)

Art is not Christian. Art is not pagan. Art is human. Like all things human, Christianity puts it in negotiation with the divine to find its expression and meaning. As illuminated in the Catacombs, Christians have from the beginning attempted the synthesis of faith with culture: the addition, the retention, the rejection.

And if the defaced pagan images are any clue, we have always been disagreeing about it, too.

Leaving Michael Jackson

The HBO documentary Leaving Neverland recently made its splash in the culture, telling the stories of two men who were sexually abused by Michael Jackson as young children. It was not really a revelation; reasonable people have suspected that Jackson was a pedophile for decades. But the documentary stands as a vivid confirmation of those old suspicions. There are still MJ groupies out there who, demonstrating why predators sometimes succeed in victimizing children despite flagrant warning signs, huff that you can’t just assume Michael Jackson was abusing all those little boys he lured into his bed. Everyone else is facing the truth. So we have begun – too late, but better than never – our cultural reckoning of the fact that the King of Pop was a monster.

Many fruitful, if unhappy, avenues of discussion might be opened, not least how parents can so thoroughly fail to protect their children. Our normal focus on culture, however, leads us down another road. Michael Jackson is gone, but his music is still here. As we see with increasing clarity who Michael Jackson was and what he did, should we continue to listen to his songs?

This relates back to a larger question, and a larger debate: How much can – or should – we separate an artist from his art? There are no definitive answers; at least, I don’t have them. But there are several considerations that will clear our thinking and aid our decisions.

First, does enjoying the art fuel the wealth, celebrity, or power of the artist? A more targeted version of the question: Does it fuel the wealth, celebrity, or power of the artist in a way that enables his abuses? For example, Bill Cosby might get a little richer if networks played reruns of The Cosby Show, but he would be no more likely to assault another woman. But it might have been argued, twenty years ago, that because Jackson used his fame and money to manipulate his victims, contributing to either would be wrong.

Second, what is the nature and severity of the offense? Very few people would discard a book or song or movie because the creator was an alcoholic. But alcoholism, as terrible as it is, is in another category than the predations of abusers.

Third, how closely did the artist associate himself with his art? Some artists – generally those whose art is essentially performative, but writers have done it, too – craft a persona, wed it to their art, and sell the whole package to the public. If your celebrity is anchored to yourself as much as your work, there is cognitive dissonance and probably some shamelessness in instructing people to take your art by itself. Michael Jackson’s self-presentation was always bizarre; now it seems sinister. There is, too, self-reference in much art, including Jackson’s “Scream”. Such reference can, with greater knowledge, be intolerable.

Good art is often made by bad people. This is a revelation to no one. We have all enjoyed art while knowing, or at least suspecting, that the creator was a bad person. Maybe, then, the real debate is not at all abstract; we all agree that sometimes you should separate art and artist, because we all sometimes have. Maybe the real debate is all about particulars: Should we separate this artist from this art?

It can be hard, especially when the artist abused children.

According to the Label

There is nothing categorically wrong with labels. Labels are short-hand descriptions, a fast and easy method of classification – much like words. There is nothing wrong with labels just as labels. But labels, like everything else in this world, can go wrong. Some labels are active lies; others (not nearly so bad) are so insufficient they create more confusion than clarity, or so vague they are almost useless in conveying information.

Which brings us to the label “a creative”. As you know, this word (recently converted from an adjective to a noun) has become a popular self-label in recent years. It’s thrown out in blog posts, claimed in profiles. It appears to be roughly synonymous with “artist” – not by definition but by use (one senses that the “creatives” are not accountants).

The primary failing of this label is that it lacks a clear and specific definition. If you tell me that you’re a creative, I believe you, but I don’t know what you mean by it. Are you a musician, a writer, a painter, an actor? Or is it less a single talent or pursuit and more a way of thinking? Let me put it this way: An artist is defined by what he does (art). Is a creative likewise defined by what he does, or is he defined by what he is (creative)? I don’t know. I don’t understand the label.

I’ve poked around the Internet and discovered eloquent and elaborate definitions of what a creative is; these people aren’t pulling definitions out of a Dictionary. Some people understand the label. But they don’t always understand it the same. If they were operating out of a Dictionary, we would have a simple and reigning definition. But since they are instead spilling four hundred words to define a creative as they understand one to be, the meaning of the label is fluid. And the usefulness of a label is inversely proportional to the fluidity of its meaning.

While the label of “a creative” is in one way too vague, it is in another too exclusive. The label is generally applied to people who are creative in an artistic sense, but there are a thousand other ways to be creative. A person who can take a recipe off the Internet and make it twice as good is creative. People who come up with new and better operating procedures, that engineer or programmer or CEO who can see the way around the obstacle – they are all creative. Whoever first invented the assembly line was very creative. By God’s many and marvelous gifts, the world is overrun by creative people. A label for creatives that acknowledges only one kind of creativity is flawed; it encourages a false distinction, an unhelpful delineation between us and them.

Labels matter – because they are categories, because they are descriptions in brief, because they share the fundamental purpose of all words: to build a bridge. It is important, then, to choose your labels carefully. Before adopting, or bestowing, a label, we must consider what information the label conveys, and what judgments it implies.

Seriously, Now

For some years, I avidly followed a certain political/cultural writer until finally – you know how it can be, between authors and readers – we drifted apart. I thought her commentary was simply declining. One symptom of this decline was an overabundance of the word serious. It wasn’t right or left or even right or wrong anymore: The new word – the only word – was serious. Our national diagnosis was a lack of seriousness and our national prescription was to get serious. Our leaders weren’t serious and they didn’t know how serious things were, but if everybody would just get serious we would all be serious and then things could finally stop being so serious.

I lost interest, but I had a thought: To be serious is not enough. And can’t a serious person be just as wrong as an unserious person and, in certain situations, even more disastrous?

This principle can be applied to art as well as people. You may hear much of serious art or a serious work, but the phrase tells little of the real quality or worth of the work. My favorite example of this disconnect between seriousness and worthiness is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes. The most shocking thing about Tarzan of the Apes is that it is a genuinely serious book, a story written around ideas. The second most shocking thing is the book’s level of racism. Given the period in which Tarzan of the Apes was written, a certain degree of racism would not have been surprising; when racism is dominant in society, it is inevitably reflected in (some of) that society’s art. But even with that forewarning, the racism of Tarzan is surprising in its pervasiveness, in how deeply and how elaborately it is woven into the story.

These two elements – the book’s seriousness and its racism – are not at all in contradiction. Indeed, if Tarzan of the Apes had been less serious, it would probably have been less racist. Burroughs might have still, in the appearance of a minor black character, invoked cheap, false stereotypes, but he would not have taken such pains to present thoroughbred English aristocrats as the highest human type. That was Burroughs’ elucidation of the theory of eugenics. Tarzan of the Apes revolves around nature v. nurture, the effect of environment and the effect of genetics; it is also wrong about nearly everything, from the truth of eugenics to the likely consequences of a childhood totally without human interaction. But books, like people, are not any less serious for being wrong, nor less wrong for being serious.

All of this emphasizes the essential ambivalence of what we call seriousness. Serious is more a description than a judgment, more an attribute than a virtue or a vice. To be serious is not to be good, or even to be deep, but the ambivalence is greater than that. Serious ideas, cogently presented, are as likely to be false as to be true, and some of the most serious works are also among the most malignant.

So if anyone, or anything, is commended to you as being serious, remember that this could mean seriously wrong.

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.