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December 13, 2010

"Good Artists Are People Who..."

wendell-berry-1.jpg Thumbing through Wendell Berry's Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, I found myself reflecting on a couple of passages that I highlighted when I read this book a number of years ago. What a stirring book. The first quote describes what makes art "good." Perhaps it is surprising that he names permanence as a hallmark of good art. I also like that his understanding of what art is is expansive, not reductive.

"Good artists are people who can stick things together so that they stay stuck. They know how to gather things into formal arrangements that are intelligible, memorable, and lasting. Good forms confer health upon the things that they gather together. Farms, families, and communities are forms of art just as are poems, paintings, and symphonies. None of these things would exist if we did not make them. We can make them either well or poorly; this choice is another thing that we make" (150).

Berry makes this statement in the final chapter that draws a series of conclusions from the argument that he has been developing over the course of the book - namely that science often subjugates the arts and religion and that these critical spheres of life are not, nor can be, subject to the reductionistic and materialistic assumptions that govern modern science. In that sense, science/scientists often conceive(s) itself/themselves in a "superstitious" way - that is, as if it is possible to operate outside of and beyond a context. Within that false framework, Berry asserts that scientists (as well as people studying the humanities captive to this superstitious framework) do their "science" abstracted from specific communities and that such abstraction is "destructive." Thus, he says,

"The only remedy I can see is for scientists (and artists also) to understand and imagine themselves as members of, and sharers in, the fate of affected communities. Our schools now encourage people to regard as mere privileges the power and influence that they call leadership. But leadership without membership is a terrible thing" (148).

Perhaps that is what is so profound and beautiful about the God who is revealed in the incarnation of Jesus Christ anticipated during Advent and celebrated at Christmas. As Paul writes in the Christological hymn of Philippians, Jesus "...who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness" (2:6-7). Thus, the "power and leadership" demonstrated by God in Christ, if you will, is expressed through and in his self-limiting participation as a member of humanity. Or as Eugene Peterson poetically translates John's description of the incarnation in his gospel, "The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood" (1:14a).

And what about God's art? A reformed and renewed humanity imperfectly displayed and anticipated in his body, the church - created by God and animated by the Spirit in a way that has stuck together, more or less, for a couple of thousand years. "For we are," as Paul writes in Ephesians, "God's workmanship..." Or, as N.T. Wright has translated it, we are "God's poems." Our lives, especially when well-lived together, are God's artwork. Perhaps this is why Berry uses these words from the mouth of Shakespeare's Lear as both the title and the epigraph of the book.

"Thy life's a miracle. Speak yet again."

And so to the God who spoke and continues to speak the living, miraculous Word that is Christ, we pray and say during this season of Advent,

"Thy life's a miracle. Speak yet again." And again, and again. Amen.

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Looi Kwokwah

The creation around,God's hand works of art. It was good when first put together by the power of the spoken word. Sadly interupted and spoilt, by the untimely introduction of sin into these works of art. Than through epic and glorious undertaking of grace,restoration to it's former glory....For to what end,does the all powerful and all knowing God allow such to be? In the chinese Metaphysics, In every yang there is yin and in Yin there is embedded yang properties. The cycle of nature.



I resonate to the core of my being with what you and Wendell are saying about the beauty and art of life lived well. You are a brilliant poem, my friend.



Tim Keel

Thanks for your comments, Looi.

Tim Keel

Thanks, Mike.

kathleen palmer

Your comments fit in quite nicely with a couple of recent books that have been quite formative for me. They are: "To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World" by James Davison Hunter and "What is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life and the Moral Good" by Christian Smith. The Smith book, especially, has been revelatory.

kathleen palmer

When I referred to "comments", I meant to refer to your blog posts on Berry and Newbiggen.

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