Sometimes I go to Amazon.com and read the one- and two-star reviews of my books. I do this, I suppose, for the same reason that I sometimes ask my children, “What do you think of this outfit?” It’s a means of mortifying the flesh.
A reader called “j:-)mi” offers up an especially juicy review of The Charlatan’s Boy. It reads, in part,
This book contains no spiritual element. There is no ultimate being, no book of ultimate authority, no hint of the supernatural…It's not specifically a ‘Christian’ book, just a book written and published by Christians and sold in Christian bookstores.
I have to say, that one surprised me a little bit. I thought I was writing a very spiritual book in The Charlatan’s Boy—or, in any case, a very Christian book. (If it makes j:-)mi feel any better, precious few copies of that book were sold in Christian bookstores, or anywhere else.)
But j:-)mi’s remarks bring up some interesting questions. Here are two: What is “spiritual content”? And how is spiritual content related to Christian content?
The Apostle Paul gives a couple of imperatives that seem at first blush to be a problem for people like me, who value the arts as a means of truth-telling even when the “spiritual element” isn’t on the surface—even when nobody prays the Sinner’s Prayer at the end of the story. In Colossians 3:2, Paul writes, “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” In 2 Corinthians 4:18, he writes, “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” In every era, these verses have been used by some Christians to devalue that portion of the created order that we see with our eyes—including (or especially) the arts—in order to boost the value of the spiritual order.
Christians of all varieties agree that God is a spirit. And spirit is not directly accessible to our five senses. Consider how many of our words to describe God are negations.
Immortal, invisible, God only wise.
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes.
The arts, on the other hand, operate in the sensory realm that God utterly transcends. We offer visual art to the eye. We offer music to the ear. We create stories that (hopefully) evoke all five senses. Paul says “set your mind on things above, not on earthly things.” The artist says, “Here, let me show you this earthly thing.”
So how do reconcile this apparent conflict?
I would start with that word “mind.” How do we set our minds on things above? How do we help others to set their minds on things above? We do possess the powers of abstract thought and logical argument by which we can understand some things about God without the use of our five senses. However, we are not “brains on a stick,” to borrow James K.A. Smith’s phrase. We inhabit the world in our bodies, and most of what we know, we know not strictly through logical connections, but through the mediation of our senses. And let us not forget that we will inhabit the New Heavens and the New Earth in our bodies too.
I’m taking the long way around to say this: the best way to set our minds on spiritual things isn’t necessarily to talk directly and abstractly about spiritual things. To set your mind on spiritual things is to have different longings from those who set their minds on earthly things. Abstract thought and logical argument can only go so far in shaping our longings (and not very far at that). God uses story, song, feasting, fasting—the whole of lived, bodily experience to shape our longing.
Which brings us back to the verse from 2 Corinthians that I quoted above: “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
We live in a world that is forever telling us false stories about itself, about ourselves, about God, about the nature of human flourishing. What Saint Augustine called the City of God and the City of Man are really two competing stories—or, more precisely, the true Story and a billion competing stories, each a version of Satan’s lines from Paradise Lost:
to reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.
Dwelling here among the City of Man, it is easy to forget what Story we truly live in. The right kind of story says, “There’s something truer than what you see with your eyes.” The right kind of music says, “Sure, you live in the midst of screeching discord; but doesn’t this harmony, this rhythm sound truer than all that?” The right kind of picture reorders the chaos of a world that assaults us with ugliness on every side. The art of gardening reminds us that the thorns that infest the ground won’t have the final word. The art of cooking reminds us that we are more than beasts who eat to fill our bellies and fuel our bodies; we are creatures of taste whose appetites can be whetted here, but only fulfilled at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. As Robert Farrar Capon put it, “Nourishment is necessary only for a while; what we shall need forever is taste.”
If those arts don’t set our minds on things above (or, as the King James Version puts it, “set our affections on things above), I don’t know what does. Sure, there are stories and songs and pictures (and even meals) that tell false stories. That’s all the more reason for us to tell the truest Story, using whatever means are at our disposal. Hospitality, friendship, parenting, business, civic involvement, beekeeping… the modes of creativity by which Christians tell a truer story extend far, far beyond what we normally think of as “the arts.”
I will conclude with one caveat. I have already mentioned that we can get things wrong by telling or consuming the wrong kind of stories. But we can also get things wrong by consuming the right kind of stories the wrong way. C.S. Lewis warns:
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
Yes and amen. The arts, at their best, set our minds on things above.
Jonathan Rogers is an author whose books include The Wilderking Trilogy, The Charlatan’s Boy, and The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor; he also teaches writing online and at New College Franklin and writes The Habit, a weekly letter about writing. www.jonathan-rogers.com.