Art, Thou Art Blessed

"Hail Mary" by Sam Fentress

"Hail Mary" by Sam Fentress

So, I’m Christian, and I love great, beautiful things.  You know: music, books, paintings, movies, and even capital-A Art.  But as a Christian, this is difficult: on the one hand you have the great quantity of Christian Art (Contemporary Christian Music, Christian Novels, Christian Devotional Paintings — you know what I mean) that is just badly done.  It is preachy, or one-dimensional, or uses God like a chew-toy to keep the pets quiet.

And, on the other hand, there’s so much mainstream art that sees God as the idol that must be smashed (or rebuked, slandered, dunked in urine — again, you know what I mean).

What is attractive, then, is to find a place such as IMAGE, a journal edited by Gregory Wolfe, in which art is valued, and especially art with a religious… scent.  In much of what IMAGE publishes, God is not so much seen, as smelled, touched, or glimpsed.

A great example of this comes in a short story entitled The Sparrow, written by the excellent novelist Ron Hansen, and published in the recent 20th anniversary issue of IMAGE.   In the story, a young boy named Aidan deals with the death of his mother.  The pieties that are spoken to him help him so little, and in one scene, Aidan works up the courage to go talk to the priest.  The young assistant pastor answers the door, and they sit down to talk.

“And you’re wondering why she died?”

“Sort of.”

The priest’s right elbow was on the arm of the chair and his right cheek was against his knuckles, as in a book-jacket photograph illustrating wise consideration.  “The psalmists asked it long ago,” he said.  “Why do the evil prosper?  Why do the innocent suffer?  Why, when a loved one is dying, doesn’t God intercede? Those are philosophical questions and they fall under the category called ‘theodicy.’”

“I’m just twelve,” Aidan said.

The twelve-year-old points out what is true of everyone.  How helpful is philosophy when your Mom dies?  In another scene, Aidan gets up in the night and sees his father “weeping so like a child that Aidan himself wept with him.”  Beneath it all, the child and the man are the same, both needing to draw near God, but finding that thoughts, whether platitudes or theodicies, are not strong enough.  Thought alone will not bring you to the Mystery.

Somehow tears, stories, nature, and perhaps even sparrows can bring one to God.  This is much of what IMAGE is about: highlighting and encouraging people who open us to the Mystery of God through story, film, music, poetry, painting and other skills.  They are skills that take us beyond processes, beyond logic, and spill over into the gracious world of symbol.  So think about it: if you have the patience to sit and read an occasional short story or a poem that might open you to God, think about picking up IMAGE.


11 Responses to Art, Thou Art Blessed

  1. markdefrancisis says:

    Thank you for the IMAGE link!

    And I plan to be a frequent visitor to your new endeavor.

  2. bill bannon says:

    Many of the severe themes of the Bible are absent in modern Catholic culture, homilies and conversation so that when we arrive at tragedy like that of the boy who lost his mother, the new box that Catholic discourse is in…a somewhat overly sweet but smallish box…breaks at the seams. This obtains at the very top also with Rahner, Balthasar, John Paul and Benedict all holding out hope for a perfectly empty hell not in the universalist manner but in the orthodox venue of God’s antecedent will achieving salvation in each and every case with the last second cooperation of each person if need be. I rather think Augustine and Chrysostom to be correct on Judas that Revelation tells us that Judas is in hell (the litany of Christ’s words on Judas simply do not befit a person headed for glory)…and Judas’ death is not the only ominous death that seems to signify hell in the Bible even in the NT (see Acts 12 as Herod’s body is left by the angel to be eaten by worms).

    That is just one area. The anti death penalty campaign that is absent any commensurate papal campaign on whether murderers should do more penance in prison rather than the loitering at cards and tv…is again the inability to face the severe though we are using a mere slice of the criminal problem (the death penalty) to image that we are longer the Church of the Inquisition.
    But sweetness obtains in general and that renders the advice of those within that box…not advice to the 12 year old boy.

  3. Thomas Shawn says:

    On the conversation between the priest and the boy: an example of intellect (knowledge of ‘theodicy’) clouding any real knowledge of God and rendering the human experience as remote and stale.

  4. gb says:

    Mr Bannon,
    A correct understanding of Mercy does not “empty hell” as you accuse our Holy Fathers of doing. In fact, inability to accept Divine Mercy (i.e., Pride) is how people condemn themselves to hell eventually. You see, each person is nothing without Divine Mercy. By denying that Mercy to others, and to yourself, you are not only condemning them but yourself as well.

    This isn’t “soft & sweet” theology. Not at all, as anyone who has had to accept Divine Mercy can testify to. Until we can do that, we will never know who we are or who God is…and we’ll be condemned to live in that ‘box’ that you refer to.

  5. bill bannon says:

    Your post is really two posts with the first sentence having nothing to do with the second sentence on down to the bottom.
    From your second sentence on down to the bottom, you are debating someone who is not me since I believe in Divine Mercy and actually pray each day for those in mortal sin/ or moving toward mortal sin/ and especially those dying in mortal sin..Catholics and non Catholics. So each day I work on the people in the worst situation morally. I have no such hope for Judas because Christ providentially said nothing good about him and said all that was bad about him. So from your second sentence down, there is nothing you said that is against what I actually wrote. What I am saying is that the belief that we can’t even know that Judas is in hell despite Christ’s words about him which are all bad words ….means we are editing the Bible to fit with the modern nervousness about an eternal hell.

    That leaves your first sentence as the only one that I can ackowledge as against what I actually wrote…you write:
    “A correct understanding of Mercy does not “empty hell” as you accuse our Holy Fathers of doing.”

    The last two Popes are on record verbally as saying that we can’t be sure that Judas is in hell and I have Rahner as implying the same thing right here in my collection of him and I can find the two papal quotes which are on CD’s here if you really need them.

    What is dogma on this is what the Council of Trent noted in the 6th session:

    “…for except by special revelation, it cannot be known whom God hath chosen unto Himself.”

    Me again…you and I cannot even say that Pablo Escobar the drug dealer and mass murderer nor Pol Pot are in hell because God has not revealed this.
    But He has revealed where Judas is and He did that perhaps to make hell real rather than mythic which it is for many.
    The bible is Revelation and while Augustine and Chrysostom saw Christ’s words as being a revelation of where Judas is and said so, the 4 above named men did not see it but they had to ignore an awful lot in order not to see it. So whereas Trent had said in such matters there had to be revelation from Heaven before one could say where another was eternally, the 4 modern men named could not even say Judas was in hell as two Fathers did… when Revelation did say it.
    Now there are conditional threats within Scripture wherein if a man or country repent, the carrying out of the threat is removed by God…but such does not obtain in the cases of Judas and Herod Antippas who die in a dire manner unlike Ananias and Sapphira by the way who,though punished with death by God, simply fall down and are buried (Acts 5) which is far more hopeful than the description in the same book (Acts 12) as to Herod: “22 The assembled crowd cried out, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.”
    23 At once the angel of the Lord struck him down because he did not ascribe the honor to God, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.”
    I would suggest that if the Bible has the purpose of communicating to human beings, then it has communicated herein that Herod Antippas thus was not in the sanctifying grace needed for entrance into Purgatory whereas Ananias and Sapphira die with a certain amount of respect for the manner in which they die even though God is slaying them for sacrilege also (which by the way is the only reason I have found in the Bible that makes God slay intimately…Onan even… at the deepest level was risking the non appearance of Christ who had to come through that little family of 4 men). And Uzzah whom God kills for steadying the ark is rather a case similar to Ananias and Sapphira in hopefulness that he eventually reached Heaven since his act had the best intentions of preventing the ark from falling:
    2 Samuel 6:6

    “When they came to the threshing floor of Nodan, Uzzah reached out his hand to the ark of God and steadied it, for the oxen were making it tip.
    But the LORD was angry with Uzzah; God struck him on that spot, and he died there before God.”

    So you see I am hopeful about Uzzah and Ananias and Sapphira in contrast to Judas and Herod Antippas because even though all are slain by God, only two have a really ominous ending as to death and words in the case of Judas as it involves salvation.

  6. Matt Talbot says:

    Bill – If the current Catholic sensibility is not cognizant enough of the possibility Hell, that must be understood as in part an overcompensation for a previous Church culture that over-emphasized Hell, to the point of being nearly Jansenistic.

    The following conversation was relatively common before the Second Vatican Council:

    “Father, I swallowed some toothpaste before Mass today – may I still worthily receive communion?”

    “Yes, child, but you ought to be careful about that.”

    What is the image of God being communicated in that conversation, by both participants?

    It is worth remembering that Christ reserved his most pointed criticisms to those who used religion to suffocate believers under a tsunami of rules-for-rules-sake; whose motive was not the enabling of goodness in those they (supposedly) served, but exercising authoritarian control over them.

    Christ rightly saw this as glorification of self over giving glory to God, and thus was a form of idolatry.

    Many of the now-older people who de-emphasized Hell in the years since Vatican II remember a culture that was saturated with legalism and disposed laity toward scrupulosity. That culture needed to change.

    That said, a world without the possibility of Hell is a world without justice and freedom; but then, a world that consists only of perfect justice is a world without hope, and that is not a world I particularly enjoy contemplating.

  7. bill bannon says:

    Agreed as to what happened… but neither generation had the right to be unbalanced in either direction and then blame that on the previous generations.
    Such a rocking back and forth between opposing thesis/antithesis couplets is not to be sought as an ideal. Christ said sweet things and severe things…within a 3 year time span as did Paul and thus they were not trying to counterbalance a previous over emphasis of either by those previous to them.
    That is: each preacher or person ought to seek to convey the whole “sweet and sour” to use terms from Chinese cuisine.
    Paul noted at Miletus to the elders that this whole counsel of God that includes both sweet and severe is one which he noted tempts one to shrink since it contains the severe which repels human beings more than we admit:
    Acts 20:26-27
    “And so I solemnly declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you,
    for I did not shrink from proclaiming to you the entire plan of God.”

    Now no one shrinks from declaring the sweet alone but one does shrink from declaring the “sweet and sour” as a whole entity.

    Romans 11:22 clearly accepts the unity of the sweet and sour:

    “See, then, the kindness and severity of God: severity toward those who fell, but God’s kindness to you, provided you remain in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off.”

    Our 12 year old boy in the original posting who loses his mom will be better off if he meets someone who does not try to make his loss a momentary delusion due to the overriding Love of God. Last week the NY area had a total of 8 people killed from two separate Catholic families due to one of the drivers entering an exit ramp on the Taconic highway and crashing head on with another Catholic family…4 adults and 4 children gone in an instant and due to perhaps not noticing a “do not enter” sign.
    The faith of all near relatives to this tragedy is going to be challenged for years as to reconciling this moment with the “watching over us” by a loving God which is a real temptation as to their spirit and not a fake temptation that they should have known better in regard to.
    Their temptation against faith will be real and they can stay firm against it but they cannot stay firmly trusting if they try to do so with only half the counsel of God. If they are trained only in the sweet things about God, their encounter with this temptation against faith will be harder to bear.
    Christ was about both the sweet and the sour and said to His Father about Judas: ” When I was with them I protected them in your name that you gave me, and I guarded them, and none of them was lost except the son of destruction, in order that the scripture might be fulfilled.” Jn 17:12 NAB
    The sweet and the sour in one sentence…not in two separate generations.

  8. Matt Talbot says:

    Bill – While it is true that Christ was both sweet and severe as you say, it is worth asking whom he was severe with, and why, and whom he was sweet with, and why.

    Christ generally showed sweet mercy to the ordinary sinners (adulterers, corrupt bureaucrats, thieves, et al) of his day who approached him, but reserved his strongest condemnation for the hypocritical religious officials he described as “whitewashed tombs.”

    I’m glad you agree that the culture of the Church should not be reset to what it was before the Second Vatican Council; I think we agree that a more balanced approach to catechesis would go a long way to correcting both the excesses of the Church before the council, and the compensatory excesses that followed it.

  9. gb says:

    I am going to try to say this again: God’s Mercy = God’s Justice. We are in no position, this side of heaven, to decide what is “sweet” or “sour”, to use your terminology. What I may consider sweet today, maybe sour tomorrow. I’ve lived long enough to “thank God for unanswered prayers”, like Garth Brooks says, because I see that what i thought was sweet in fact was not.

    By setting ourselves up to judge what is sweet and what is sour, we get ourselves and others quickly lost because, again, we do not have the power to differentiate the two. The ONLY sure road is abandonment to divine providence which is ALWAYS merciful. God doesn’t have anything else to give us but Mercy & Love because that’s his total nature.

    So, if the poor families who were involved in the car wreck you mentioned have been taught to live in daily Abandonment to Divine Mercy, they will suffer terrible grief but will come out strengthened. To simply tell them that that’s the ‘sour’ part, is not helpful because #1 Its not true and #2 it deprives them of the help, consolation and healing that Jesus longs to give them at this moment.

  10. bill bannon says:

    Your identifying God’s justice with His mercy …let’s just say conflicts with St. Thomas Aquinas who says “God acts mercifully, not indeed by going against His justice, but by doing something more than justice” Thus Thomas differentiates the two. Justice involves what is due and mercy involves giving more than is due. Hence he brings up the example of hell:
    ” Certain works are attributed to justice, and certain others to mercy, because in some justice appears more forcibly and in others mercy. Even in the damnation of the reprobate mercy is seen, which, though it does not totally remit, yet somewhat alleviates, in punishing short of what is deserved.”

    You write: ” To simply tell them that that’s the ’sour’ part, is not helpful…”

    I nowhere said “to simply tell them” that that is the sour part. Again I have no idea who you are debating but I know it is not me or what I actually wrote. Before responding, double check as to whether the other person really said what you are about to say they said.

    Your notes on the sweet and sour are about applying the two terms to an area which I did not apply it to: how humans perceive an event simply… tragic or beneficent. My point is different and it is that a person schooled in actual scripture in its entirety with scripture’s balance between the sweet and the sour or to use the terms of Romans 11..the “severity” and the “goodness” of God…a person so schooled will better be able to handle the darkest moments within life. That is not the same as your representation of a person actually seeing the good in the apparent bad. That is another topic that I did not broach.

  11. bill bannon says:

    We probably agree but I would just note that Christ and the scribes and pharisees was a particular moment in which it was chiefly their hour to lead Israel in recognizing Him but certain hidden carnalities on their part could well have been part of their religious failure to recognize Him and their moment…thus Christ at times mentions their capacity for theft and not just internal hypocrisy in the abstract as pertains to pride:
    Luke 20:47
    “They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very severe condemnation.”

    I Corinthians 6 corrects any impressions from that relationship of Christ to the leaders that therefore the other major sins were small in se:

    I Cor.6:9 “Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites
    nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

    So yes those matters are not compounded in the ordinary person by hypocrisy of a religious nature but nevertheless they do bar one from Heaven.

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