It had not been an easy week. No, nothing astronomical had happened — my burden was made up of what 19th century missionary Amy Carmichael called “silly little nothings, things you are ashamed of minding one scrap.” Mine is a melancholy nature, paired with a brain that twists in odd places. And so I found myself descending into low spirits, hounded by Confusion, my own particular enemy.
To escape myself, I stepped out the front door. It was a cool morning in early June, and I hoped that a walk might do me some good.
When my family lived in the country, I walked several miles every day. But now we live in the middle of the city. Brick houses with front porches line up along the street, old trees stretch up on either side, and at the end lies a wide thoroughfare with the Detroit River just across it. Riverside Drive is properly cosmopolitan, with a view of the Detroit skyline and constant traffic flying by.
The city is a great deal like my mind on a bad day: It’s busy, over-stimulated, generally confused. Walking here is not like walking in the country. But on this particular morning, the city was not quite itself.
Riverside Drive was quiet. A beautiful gray mist infused the air. It seemed to rise all along our street as I headed toward the river. Within its magical atmosphere, all that was green was brilliantly green. Silver tree branches stretched high, tips fading into the mist. The river was gray and restless; the skyline had disappeared. The world was at once smaller and more intensely real than usual.
As I walked, I could feel the Spirit of God with me. The air cooled and refreshed my heart. In this misty microcosm of the usual world, perspective began to return to me. The small things had not, after all, knocked God off His throne. His embrace was present now as ever. The emerald green intricacy of leaves on a hedge caught my attention, all of them glinting in slightly different shades, all perfect and beautiful. I recalled what I’d read in a science text recently about the miraculous intricacy of photosynthesis, of molecular biology, of the cells that make up a single leaf. And I knew very suddenly that nothing was too small for God’s attention or too intricate for Him to fully understand.
I had a strong sense that morning that God had ministered to me in an unusual way. He’d done so artistically, with the fine touch of a master artist. He painted a still scene, spoke to my senses, engaged and calmed my mind with the power of beauty, intricacy, and unity. I remember thinking that no human artist would ever be able to replicate what God had done in the mist.
And yet, as artists, is that not one of our chief Christian callings?
Our world is overwhelmingly busy, complex and confusing. It pounds at us emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually; a thousand points of light coming not together, but darting off like manic fireflies to keep our attention forever diffused. In this vortex of stimuli, truth and deception, art may do what few other things can: It may, for a moment, still the scene around us. It places us in a world that is at once smaller and more real than we are used to. With its unique perspective, it cuts through the noise surrounding us. Suddenly, through the witness of art, truth can be seen and heard.
The French novelist Marcel Proust once wrote, “The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Our eyes and ears need baptism: a renewal that allows us to see and hear truth. This is a baptism that art is able to give — that as Christians who are also artists, we should seek to give.
Of course, we cannot force God to speak through art. I create because I am made in the Creator’s image, and if He chooses to use my work, I can only be grateful and humbled by it. But historically, God has often chosen to use art to this purpose. This is the impact of Jesus’ parables, stories like the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan, which push aside the distractions of life long enough for people to see clearly. It is the impact of David’s psalms, gorgeous poetry and echoes of ancient music that wake our hearts to long for God. It was the impact of Moses’ bronze serpent, an image of sin hanging on a pole, which saved those who looked upon it.
The visual arts, with their way of bringing life into a sudden stillness, often do for me what that misty day did. Photographs, paintings and sketches force me to see people and life anew. They transport me to places in the world that enlarge my perspective. In the depiction of a flower, a face or an idea, the noise around me is stilled. Some truth is captured in microcosm, and I am kept quiet enough to hear it. That which was complex to me becomes suddenly simple. As bright green leaves on a bush told me that God had not overlooked any part of my life, so an artist’s vision may show me anew what beauty, care and purpose exists in creation.
My own visual memory is so poor that I can’t even picture the faces of my loved ones when I’m away from them. It’s curious, then, that people who read my novels often tell me how vividly they were able to picture a certain character or setting. I think of my own characters and settings in vague impressions, in improbable flashes of color. At one point, I described an entire novel (Taerith) to a friend as purple, green and gray. If I try to sketch my characters out clearly in my mind, the result is a disproportionate, non-human mess.
But while I am actually writing, a miracle occurs. I am describing something, and suddenly that something is there — is present, is visible before my eyes. It only happens for a split second, but in that second, something comes to life. The words on the page cut through the noise and distractions around me and make something real. I worship God in those moments, because I know that He has met me. As artists, we can meet God in the creative process. What we receive from Him can then be communicated to others.
So I write, practicing my own art form, in an attempt to capture what is real and give it as a gift to others. As others — painters, photographers, dancers, actors, poets, singers, musicians and novelists — have given it to me. My desire is first to allow God to baptize my own ears and eyes, and then to make of my own work a baptism.
We live in a world of tremendous noise. But in the noise, in the tangles of distraction, lie songs — pictures — truths that God has placed here for us to see. As Christians who are also artists, we may plumb the depths of God’s gifts, drawing the pictures, writing the songs and telling the stories that will cut through the noise and bring truth into sharp, refreshing relief.
Copyright 2008 Rachel Starr Thomson. All rights reserved.