[Guest post by Drew Humphrey, Minister of Family & Communication and current elder candidate.]
Have you ever tried to grab water? It’s quite difficult.
I can still see the look on our oldest daughter’s face when, as a toddler, she would stare intently at the water coming out of the faucet in the bathtub, attempting to discover its many mysteries. Inevitably, it would only be a matter of time before she would reach her hand toward the pillar of liquid and carefully attempt to squeeze her fingers around it. To her great disappointment, it never worked. She never could grab that water and carry it around the house like I knew she wanted to. She just got wet.
Whether we realize it or not, we spend most of our lives trying to grab water. Not literally, of course, like a toddler. Instead, we try to grab water by wrapping our hearts and minds around experiences and realities that seem constantly to elude us. Whether it’s trying to come to terms with a deep and profound sense of joy or a searing and disorienting sense of heartache—we’re always reaching, always straining our fingers, always trying to make sense of things. And most of the time, we’re about as successful as my daughter in the bathtub.
But what if there was a way to grab the water? What if we could—if not fully, at least partially—wrap our fingers around that elusive reality and lay hold to it?
I believe we can. I believe there’s a way. It’s called art.
Makoto Fujimura, a renowned artist and a devout Christian, observes in an essay appearing in his book Refractions, “The power of art is to convey powerful personal experiences in distilled language and memorialize them in a cogent manner.” He goes on to say, “The Creator God has given us creativity and the arts so that we may ‘name’ experiences, just as God commissioned Adam to name the animals in the Garden.” Or, to put it in the vernacular of our present discussion: art allows us to grab water.
Let me give you two examples.
If you ever talk to me about movies, you’re likely to hear me rave about The Tree of Life. And while there are many reasons I like the film, the main reason by far is that I have found it to possess an uncanny ability to name an experience that is otherwise mysterious and elusive—specifically the sense of identity that comes with living life in the context of family. Tree of Life gives me a “distilled language” (to borrow Fujimura’s phrase) to wrap my mind around something I wouldn’t otherwise be able to.
Another example is a song that I’ve been listening to, even while writing this very blog post. Take a moment to watch this, and see if you can see how this artistic expression captures the paradoxical nature of true joy:
Here’s the amazing thing: as soon as you ask yourself the question, “Why is this so dark and gloomy?” you’ve already begun to enter the mystery. Doesn’t that song resonate with your own experience of joy? Doesn’t it communicate the biblical reality that joy in this life is often mixed with sadness? Don’t you walk away having grasped something that you likely wouldn’t have been able to grasp simply by having someone come up to you and tell you, “Joy and sorrow are not incompatible”?
For the vast majority of Americans, art is simply a convenient source of entertainment, release, and distraction (think: television and radio). But Christians should see art as something more—as a way to “grab the water” of what it means to live in a world that is both magnificently crafted and horrifically marred. Our interaction with art should drive us to engage reality more closely, not provide us with a convenient escape. It should help us wrestle more intensely with the fallen world around us, not pull a sheet over it so we can ignore it. It should give us a way to probe the haunting depths, not leave us splashing idyllically in the shallows.
We need art in our lives. Not in the same way that we need Jesus, or the Scriptures, or the ministry of the Spirit. But in the sense that we need food and shelter and relationships. Art helps us realize our humanity. And why wouldn’t it? After all, our humanity is crafted in the image of a supremely creative Artist who is skillfully and beautifully making all things new.