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I titled this newsletter Open Book, accent on open, because I want it to complement Biblical Horizons . I originally wanted to call it In Medias Res, a phrase meaning "in the middle of things," and used to refer to stories that open in the middle of the narrative. I had originally intended to introduce and close each essay with an ellipsis ( . . . ), indicating that we are engaged in an ongoing discussion that has not come to an end. I decided that such a scheme was too fanciful, and came up with Open Book instead.

The Openness of Literature

Let’s discuss literature for a moment. There are two ways a story or novel can close. The _rst is called poetic justice. When a story ends with poetic justice, the bad guys are all punished and the good guys are all rewarded. This kind of story is eminently Christian, because at the end of history, the bad guys will be punished and the good guys rewarded. Thus, this kind of story reminds us of a truth we don’t often see in real life. This kind of narrative falls on the rational side of the Christian fence.

The other kind of narrative does not end with poetic justice. There are loose ends. The work is open in a sense. This kind of story is also very Christian because history is open, and because God’s actions in history are mysterious. Often the wicked do escape. Often the righteous su_er. Such narratives fall on the mysterious side of the Christian fence. No better example can be found than the book of Job, for Job at least never _nds out why he su_ered.

Of course, many narratives are not written by Christians at all. The fact that they are narratives, however, betrays the true reality of existence, which only Christianity can account for. History is real; thus, narratives (stories) are possible.

Because Christians are so often sophomoric, however, they tend to reject stories that don’t have poetic justice endings. They see the openness of literature, especially modern literature, as a threat. They want a nice, neat, rationalistic wrapup. The profound artist, however, often wants to portray the openness of life.

I read science _ction, and when I think of an open ending, I think _rst of the very clever end of Jack Vance’s novel Marune: Alastor 933 (Vance is not a Christian, but he is a conservative). Here is the ending, a dialogue between the hero Efraim and his sweetheart:

Or I think of the end of the major work of that masterful Christian writer Gene Wolfe, the _ve Urth novels. These novels track the development of the character Severian as he rejects the hideous way of life to which he has been raised and attempts to make a better world. Severian is a Christian _gure, and as he develops, he becomes more and more aware of his sinfulness. At the end of the _fth book, The Urth of the New Sun, Severian has by no means become perfect, and his accomplishments are ambiguous. We leave him at a seashore by the graves of friends, not yet having come to his _nal rest, and still striving to be a decent and good man.

But we don’t have to look only to science _ction to _nd open works. Think of Umberto Eco’s two great novels, The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum. In each the story is open at the end. The nihilistic pantheism expressed by Adso of Melk at the end of The Name of the Rose is assuredly not the message of the book. Adso fails to learn that just because we cannot know everything, we can still know many things. At the end of Foucault’s Pendulum, Casaubon is waiting still for "those of little faith" to do what they will do. And time would fail us if we were to discuss Walker Percy’s novels.

The Mystery of Art

Art abstracts from life in order to enhance our understanding and appreciation of life. The arts do not _t the neat boxes set up by ideology, though ideologues try to make them do so. In this essay, I am setting out _ve reasons why the arts are "mysterious."

3. The arts deal in character and personality.

4. It is di_cult to say what good art is.

So, second, the arts deal in symbolism and imagery, which by their very nature are complements of propositional discourse. We can explain symbols and images by means of propositions, but we cannot exhaust them by doing so. We can say, for instance, that the tabernacle symbolized the cosmos. But it also symbolized the body politic of Israel at that time. It also symbolized the individual human person. And therefore, it typi_ed the New Adam to come, Jesus Christ.

Symbolism, thus, is slippery, and it is o_ensive to the ideological mind. The ideologue wants to treat symbols as codes. And when an ideologue encounters a piece of art, he analyzes it only in terms of whether it "teaches" his own doctrine or not.

When shallow Christian ideologues produce art, it is propagandistic rather than revelatory, message rather than epiphany. Rather than challenging us with the height, length, breadth, and depth of reality, such art communicates a "message," such as "you ought to come forward at a Billy Graham Crusade," or "man is ruining the environment," or "the rapture is near." Any symbolism that may be employed is crude and shallow.

Symbols and images don’t communicate ideas so much as they reveal or distort the nature of reality. They communicate by shaping us. In the _rst chapter of Gene Wolfe’s Urth novels, mentioned above, Sevarian says, "We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, de_ning edges . . . . I did not know that then, but it is a profound mistake to believe that we must know of such things to be in_uenced by them, and in fact to believe so is to believe in the most debased and superstitious kind of magic. The would-be sorcerer alone has faith in the e_cacy of pure knowledge; rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all"–from The Shadow of the Torturer. Making allowances for the fact that this comes in a novel of ideas, and is expressed by an immature character, what is said here is very, very true.

The inability of the rationalistic Christian to squeeze symbolism into his mold leads to the rejection of the arts. Because art cannot be reduced to language, it is mysterious. Art complements language as a second mode of communication, as the Lord’s Supper complements the sermon. Jesus said, "Do this as My memorial," not "Figure this out as My memorial." What is done is artistic, involving ritual, sight, touch, and taste. If the mere reading of the Word can be enhanced by prayer and sermon, so the art of the sacrament can be enhanced and extended in the liturgy.

Ideologues don’t like this, and Christianity has been infected by ideology as this point. I return to Calvinism, for it is my own context. Calvinists don’t think that the Supper will work unless they read the "words of institution." Jesus never commanded that these word be read, only that they be obeyed. Calvinists have substituted reading these words for doing the sacrament, for they don’t do what the words say to do. (They don’t have a second prayer of thanksgiving before serving the wine, and usually they don’t use wine.)

A third mysterious aspect of the arts is that they often deal with or reveal human character and personality. Biblically speaking, living things are the third mode of revelation, along with language and imagery. Just as symbols and images cannot be reduced to language codes, neither can human beings. The great value of reading great literature, such as Shakespeare or Jane Austin, is that it reveals so much about human character and life. It has a humanizing in_uence on us, humanizing in the best sense. It broadens our understanding of the image of God.

We shall explore this point in more detail as we discuss the _fth mysterious aspect of the arts below, which is that the arts arise from the mysterious depths of the human personality. For now we can note that not only can a good artist reveal other persons to us in his or her work, but the revelation of himself can also be edifying or instructive. (Of course, there is art that is just the reverse, but the corruption of a good thing does not obviate its proper use. Just because some people are gluttons does not make all food evil.)

Fourth, the arts are mysterious because it is very di_cult, if not impossible, to say in propositions what good art is. This is why the ideologue reduces the evaluation of art to its "message." Why is Bach better than Amy Grant? Why is Rouault better than the gooey sentimental stained glass windows of early 20th century churches? Why is Gene Wolfe better than Frank Peretti?

It is possible to answer these questions, but it requires training and education to do so. More than this, appreciation of the arts requires exposure and maturity. Have you ever read a description of a _ne wine? "It has a mildly fruity bouquet, with a hint of smoke, chestnut, and apple, etc." When you sip the wine, however, you taste fermented grapes; and after all, none of these _avors are actually in the wine–wine is made from grapes. The variations in _avor are caused by the soil, weather, etc. These other words ("smoke, chestnut, etc.") are merely suggestive. They are an attempt to describe. They are images, symbols.

Thus, the Christian world is full of people who say that what they like is just as good as great art. To say this is to reject the Christian doctrine of growth, maturation, and development toward the excellence of God’s glory. To say that everything is equally glorious–and glory is the criterion of the arts–is to deny history and progress. It is to say that the scrawls of a child are as good as the art of Rembrandt.

Yet, how is Rembrandt better than a child’s scrawl? The answer to that has to do with glory rather than with truth, narrowly conceived, and glory is far more mysterious than truth. God has given us truth, and we know many things. I do not take away at all from the intellectual beauty of systematic theology. But God has also given us glory, and we can indeed say that some sunsets are more glorious than others, some music better than others.

(to be concluded)

Open Book is published occasionally, funds permitting, by Biblical Horizons , P.O. Box 1096, Niceville, Florida 32588-1096. Anyone sending a donation, in any amount, will be placed on the mailing list to receive issues of Open Book as they are published. The content of all essays published in Open Book is Copyrighted, but permission to reprint any essay is freely given provided that the essay is published uncut, and that the name and address of Biblical Horizons is given.