SATURDAY READING: What Art Can and Can’t Do, by Philip Yancey

From First Things

During flirtations with existentialism in my youth, I came to love the mysterious Book of Ecclesiastes, with its ambiguities and exquisite sense of the rhythms of life.  In the years since, I have moved well beyond existential despair, but many times I have returned to Ecclesiastes and breathed a prayer of thanks that God saw fit to include such unbleached realism in Holy Scripture.  During the Festival of Tents, Jewish families read the entire book aloud, a practice I would recommend to certain groups of happy-face Christians today.

In time, I noticed that the last chapter of Ecclesiastes contains words directed toward people in my own profession of writing: “He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs.  The Teacher searched to find just the right words.”  Clearly, the Teacher of long ago knew something of the laborious process I go through each time I approach my computer today.

Then, in a sentence packed with mixed metaphors, the Teacher concludes, “The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails — given by one Shepherd.”  In typical contrapuntal style he adds this tweak: “Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them.  Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.”  The Teacher speaks truth.  For writers, I have learned, there is a time to be a goad and a time to be a firmly embedded nail.

A goad, such as farmers use on oxen and jockeys on horses, prods to action.  Goads cause enough discomfort to get animals — or people —to do something they otherwise might not do.  Over the centuries, human history has seen many examples of the creative arts used as goads, and these goads often rattle those in power.  According to the late Russian dissident Andrei Sinyavsky, “Every self-respecting writer of any significance is a saboteur, and, as he surveys the horizon wondering what to write about, more often than not he will choose some forbidden topic.”

After General Pinochet seized control in Chile, his minions broke the bones in the hands of Victor Jara, whose guitar playing had kindled the hopes of the poor.  That goad the authoritarian leader could not tolerate, and Jara was eventually shot and killed.  Similarly, paintings like Picasso’s Guernica have gotten under the skin of dictatorial regimes.  (“Did you do that?” a Fascist soldier asked Picasso reproachfully, pointing to the painting.  “No, you did,” Picasso replied.)

The Prophets of the Bible similarly served as goads.  Boiled down, their magnificent poetry reduced to a one-line message: Repent, change your ways, or judgment will come.  Harriet Beecher Stowe, a radical Christian, sought to communicate the abolitionist message to many who had blocked their ears to sermons and jeremiads.  She wrote a novel instead, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that sold two hundred thousand copies in its first year and, as much as any other force, goaded a nation toward change.

Not long ago we lived through perhaps the most momentous change in modern history.  Within the span of one year, six hundred million people gained freedom, with hardly a shot being fired.  How did it happen?  It will take historians years to sort out all the reasons behind the fall of Communism.  As one who lived through the 1960s — a decade when barricades went up in the streets of Paris, when leftists were bombing public buildings in America, and when every intellectual worth his salt was coming down on the side of revolution — I trace the fault line of change back to a lone Russian, his courage hardened to steel in the gulag, who dared proclaim, “It is a lie.”  The massive documentation assembled by Solzhenitsyn bore witness to a different truth.

Many Christians in the creative arts today strive to be goads, striking the flank of society.  I applaud them and sometimes join them.  There is a time to be a goad, and, many examples show, we should not underestimate the effect of the arts in bringing about change.

At the same time, I have increasingly come to see the limitations of a goading art.  The Prophets take up so many pages of the Old Testament because, by and large, they were spectacularly ineffective.  There was Nathan, of course, who through the sheer power of story struck King David to the heart.  And there was Jonah, the reluctant goad who, much to his own dismay, brought all Nineveh to its knees.  But few of the other prophets had much impact on Israel.  Jeremiah 36 records an all-too-typical response: The offended king simply cut up and burned Jeremiah’s scroll.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn often paid tribute to his colleagues who died unknown in the gulag, their works taken to the grave with them, buried in tundra caches that will never be discovered.  Six hundred million may have found a new measure of freedom in 1989, but one billion Chinese experienced a crackdown.  Sometimes goads have little effect.

In the United States today, I wonder how much difference Christians are making through the arts.  All the words pouring forth in our magazines and books, for example — are they influencing the culture at large?  Do we not end up goading mostly one another?

One reason we make so little difference, I believe, is that the church, like government, prefers propaganda to goads.  The same church that commissioned Michelangelo to pain the Sistine Chapel later hired a man called “the Trouserer” to clothe the nude figures.  In modern times, we impose limits on our artists, and, as we do so, we draw walls around our subculture.  There is an account in Solzhenitsyn’s memoir, The Oak and the Calf, about the brief period when even the Communist government of the Soviet Union acknowledged the genius of Solzhenitsyn’s work.  The communists thought (fatally, as it turned out) he might be a goad they could control.  Write moral and uplifting literature, they admonished him; be sure to exclude all “pessimism, denigration, surreptitious sniping.”

I laughed aloud when I first read that scene.  The advice Solzhenitsyn got from the Communists bears striking resemblance to what I sometimes hear from evangelical publishers.   Every power, whether Christian or secular, desires moral, uplifting literature — as long as they get to define what constitutes moral and uplifting.

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