The Fragrance Of Art
In the decades of writing within the Evangelical Protestant community I have had multiple arguments with well-intentioned people about “presenting the Gospel.” The argument was usually triggered by a complaint that something I had written did not “present the Gospel.” By “presenting the Gospel” was overt evangelism, in the sense of preaching “Christ crucified, risen and coming again.” The view is that everything I write, whether it is a novel or a script or a play or a song, should present an Evangelistic message that will bring my audience to their knees, literally and figuratively, to “accept Jesus into their hearts as Lord and Savior.” If my writing doesn’t do that at every opportunity, then it’s a waste of time.
Throughout the years, I have recognized the pervasive nature of that attitude about all of the arts. One could point to the history of Evangelicalism in which preaching has been the pre-eminent means of leading people to Christ. One could attest to the Evangelical subculture’s reactions to - and suspicions of - a liberal culture in which art has been used as a weapon to attack its faith and morality. One could argue that the arts simply do not have measurable results in the way that many other forms of communications do.
Compared to the “preaching” of the Gospel, the arts hardly seem worthy.
The Catholic world has its own version of that sensibility, shown by the lack of priority, or interest, most parishes have in the arts.
CS LEWIS & “FRAGRANCE”
CS Lewis once wrote to a young girl about the Chronicles of Narnia. He explained to her the difference between allegory versus other types of writing. He explained: “A strict allegory is like a puzzle with a solution: a great romance [story] is like a flower whose smell reminds you of something you can’t quite place.”
In other words, story is something that nags at you. It draws you in. It evokes more than just the flower itself.
It was a remarkable contrast to Evangelical thinking about story and, I think, the arts. Where Evangelicalism wants a direct proclamation of the Word of God, artists offer fragrances of that Word – evocative, filled with nuance and subtlety, calling to the mind more than just the Word itself.
The Apostle Paul talks about this kind of fragrance when referring to a financial gift he’d received. In Philippians 4:18, he describes the gift as “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.” It’s more than just money. It’s certainly more than just slabs of meat burning on an altar. The gift, Paul says, is filled with the richness of meaning – the intention of the giver – obedience in the giving – the support of Paul’s ministry – the lives that will be impacted – a full fragrance.
Paul uses the same idea in Second Corinthians, chapter two, when he says, “Thanks be to God, who continually leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of Himself everywhere! For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.”
In a fragrance, our God-given sense of smell directs us to the source – not by proclamation or coercion, but through nuance and subtlety. We can see in our minds and hearts the beauty of the Rose by its fragrance. The aroma of bread baking in the oven, or a sauce cooking on the stove, or meat on a barbecue, evokes images that go well beyond the anticipation of a mere meal. We may think of loved ones, family members both dead and alive, memories of days long gone, or a yearning for something beyond this moment and this time.
THE FUNDAMENTAL DIFFERENCE
St. Paul’s use of words like “fragrance” and “aroma” highlight the difference between preaching and art. Simply put: preaching tells, Art shows.
Consider beauty. We cannot preach beauty, except to describe it, perhaps even eloquently - which is the wonder of words, just as Scripture describes many beautiful things. But beauty is best-understood through experience. So, when the Bible claims that “Nature itself speaks of the Glory of God,” it tells us to look, touch, taste, hear and smell to gain a sense of God’s glory, in a way that words alone cannot convey. It must be experienced.
Art, at its best, allows us to experience something that spoken words in preaching can’t give us. The experience of drama – or music – or poetry – or fiction – or painting points us in the direction of God just as nature does. Not overtly, not as a proclamation of truth or ideas, but as a captured moment, held in time to be considered and contemplated, just like a fragrance.
Writer and preacher Frederick Buechner had this to say about the famous Haiku:
An old silent pond./
Into the pond a frog jumps./
Splash! Silence again.
Basho the poet, Buechner notes, gives us no more or less that the simplicity of a fairly mundane moment. Basho is “putting a frame around the moment, and what the frame does is enable us to see not just something about the moment but the moment itself in all its ineffable ordinariness and particularity. The changes are that if we had been passing by when the frog jumped, we wouldn’t have noticed a thing, or noticing it, wouldn’t have given it a second thought. But the frame sets it off from everything else that distracts us. It makes possible a second thought. That is the nature and purpose of frames. The Frame does not change the moment, but it changes our way of perceiving the moment. It makes us notice the moment, and that is what Basho wants above all else.”
“It is what literature in general wants above all else too,” Buechner states. As does a painter like Rembrandt, when he puts a frame around an old woman’s face. “It is not a remarkable face. You would not look twice at the old woman if you found her sitting across the aisle from you on a bus. But it is a face so remarkably seen that it forces you to see it remarkably… It is a face unlike any other face in all the world. All the faces in the world are in this one old face.”
According to Buechner, painters call us to look at the space they have filled. Musicians, on the other hand, beckon us to listen to what they have done with time – to what they’ve done between one note and another, to the broken and unbroken silence. Buechner begs us to “listen to the voices outside the window, the rumble of the furnace, the creak of your chair, the water running in the kitchen sink. Learn to listen to the music of your own lengths of time, your own silences.
“Literature, painting and music – the most basic lesson that all art teaches us is to stop, look and listen to life on this planet, including our own lives, as a vastly richer, deeper, more mysterious business than most of the time it ever occurs to us to suspect, as we bumble along from day to day on automatic pilot. In a world that for the most part steers clear of the whole idea of holiness, art is one of the few places left where we can speak to each other of holy things.”
Austin Farrar, a contemporary of CS Lewis, once observed that Lewis’ “real power was not proof; it was depiction.” He did not merely tell about his faith, he depicted it through everyday images, as he does in Mere Christianity, and in not-so everyday images, as in the world of Narnia.
Many readers have said that they were able to accept Christianity because Narnia helped them to believe in other worlds, in a reality beyond our own. It started them on the journey. It did not preach them into the Kingdom, it lured them in.
The fragrance drew them to the kitchen – and to the cook. The fragrance of the offering draws us to the temple – and to God. Jesus knew this when he told parables. The fragrance of His stories drew them to the Truth, gently luring them in a way that was different but no less valid than any of His proclamations.
THE MODEL OF JESUS
In Jesus we have our model – though, by Evangelical standards, He was a failure as a communicator. Consider it: He said things and told stories where the meanings were not clear to the listeners and He allowed them to leave without explaining what He meant, even at the risk that they might get it completely wrong. He dared to say, “Go away. Think about it. Those who have ears, let them hear.”
He was a true Artist. He simply let the fragrance move out over the crowd and into the senses of His listeners.
If we are called to be like Jesus, then we are to employ more than one means of communicating the truth of the Gospel. We are to do it through our words, our deeds, and our imaginations. We are to offer up sacrifices to God, like the priests we are all called to be, and allow the fragrances of our offerings to affect the senses of our world.
We are called to what we do, as Sacred Artists (sacred, not second-rate). We must follow our calling with every ounce of energy and inspiration we have. We must reclaim and redeem the Arts, not only from an unbelieving society, but from well-meaning but misguided believers. We must destroy the idea that “good enough” is good enough.
God called Solomon to turn a tent into a cathedral – to make something functional into a place rich in beauty, symbol and meaning. And so we must turn one-note songs into symphonies. Blank canvasses into rich, colorful paintings. Rags into tapestries. Water into wine. Spit and dirt into an ointment to open the eyes of the blind.
We are called to pray and persevere, work and sweat, guide and educate as we bring from our hands, mouths and minds the fruit of our God-given imaginations. And then we can hope that our gifts truly will be “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.”