A Thought on Art and Redemption

I posted most of this over at 22 Words and thought I would repost it here

In some sense, the fall of man was a great act of un-creation, so every act of genuine creation this side of the fall is redemptive. The end of all genuine creation may be, like the end of learning, “to repair the ruins of our first parents.”

However, I do wonder if nihilism and destruction doesn’t sometimes mask itself as art and creation.

I can’t think of any examples that I would be willing to call false art in this sense (certainly not works of art that some might struggle to find redemption in, not books like The Road or No Country for Old Men or House of Sand and Fog or modern abstract art or Belle & Sebastian). But at the end of Wem Wenders’ film Wings of Desire there is a scene in a german club (YouTube comes through again). It's tough to sum up, but I think it’s a good example of nhilistic ‘art’ as a temptation to destruction and suicide.

And the two main characters have to walk away from that scene, from that 'false art,' in order to begin a new creation.

I think also of these lines from Book II of Milton’s Paradise Lost.

The scene is in Pandaemonium, the city the demons built in hell. Satan has agreed to venture forth and tempt man and the rest are left to their own devices while they await his return. The suggestion is that some art, some philosophy, some culture is demonic and only a mockery of creation.

By false presumptuous hope, the ranged Powers
Disband; and, wandering, each his several way
Pursues, as inclination or sad choice
Leads him perplexed, where he may likeliest find
Truce to his restless thoughts, and entertain
The irksome hours, till his great Chief return.
Others, more mild,
Retreated in a silent valley, sing
With notes angelical to many a harp
Their own heroic deeds, and hapless fall
By doom of battle, and complain that Fate
Free Virtue should enthrall to Force or Chance.
Their song was partial; but the harmony
(What could it less when Spirits immortal sing?)
Suspended Hell, and took with ravishment
The thronging audience. In discourse more sweet
(For Eloquence the Soul, Song charms the Sense)
Others apart sat on a hill retired,
In thoughts more elevate, and reasoned high
Of Providence, Foreknowledge, Will, and Fate--
Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute,
And found no end, in wandering mazes lost.
Of good and evil much they argued then,
Of happiness and final misery,
Passion and apathy, and glory and shame:
Vain wisdom all, and false philosophy!--
Yet, with a pleasing sorcery, could charm
Pain for a while or anguish, and excite
Fallacious hope, or arm th' obdured breast
With stubborn patience as with triple steel.
Thus roving on
In confused march forlorn, th' adventurous bands,
With shuddering horror pale, and eyes aghast,
Viewed first their lamentable lot, and found
No rest. Through many a dark and dreary vale
They passed, and many a region dolorous,
O'er many a frozen, many a fiery alp,
Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death--
A universe of death, which God by curse
Created evil, for evil only good;
Where all life dies, death lives, and Nature breeds,
Perverse, all monstrous, all prodigious things,
Obominable, inutterable, and worse
Than fables yet have feigned or fear conceived,
Gorgons, and Hydras, and Chimeras dire.


Jodi said...

Jon, consider this (as I am sure you have read) by W. Berry:

"The task of healing is to respect oneself as a creature, no more and no less.

A creature is not a creator, and cannot be. There is only one Creation, and we are its members.
To be creative is only to have health: to keep oneself fully alive in the Creation, to keep the Creation fully alive in oneself, to see the Creation anew, to welcome one's part in it anew.

The most creative works are all strategies of this health.

Works of pride, by self-called creators, with their premium on originality, reduce the Creation to novelty -- the faint surprises of minds incapable of wonder.

Pursuing originality, the would-be-creator works along. In loneliness one assumes a responsibility for oneself that one cannot fulfill.

Novelty is a new kind of loneliness."

I find this a restful view of our responsibility to use our given means to produce beauty in God's creation.

On Paradise Lost:
This is perhaps a book-especially segments such as you quoted- that haunts me as much as Ivan's confessions in the "Rebellion" chapter of The Brother's Karamazov

I know no other words other than haunting for passages such as these which bring us so close to restless evil.

JPB said...

I have probably not read as much Wendell Berry as you have, Jodi, but that's a great quote! What's it from?

Great comment by the way. I'm mulling it over. "Restless evil." Great phrase.

Janine the Bean said...

A challenging and thought-provoking post brother.

"...every act of genuine creation this side of the fall is redemptive." I'm thinking more on this....

Define "genuine creation" for me, could you?

I don't know that I agree with you, but am thinking this all over. It could make for a good discussion....perhaps better in person, but the blogging world may have to do.

Jodi said...

I really have not read much of WB. Josh and I started reading and discussing his essays. The essay "Healing" (from which this is taken) has been very good in our discussions. It is in the book "What Are People For?"

I find myself thinking of rest vs. restlessness lately and seeking out that which leads to restful thinking. I think this is a good thing to seek after so long as we do not get rid of the necessary tensions in life that keep us from settling into unchangeable thinking. Perhaps it is simply realizing our ignorance in a humble acknowledgment of ourselves.

JPB said...

Creation = Something Proceeding from the Fruitfulness of Being a Being Created in the Image and Likeness of the Creator

Examples of:

Writing a Poem
Raising a Child
Designing a Bridge
Taking a Picture

Janine the Bean said...

Okay...I'm still thinking.

So even if a work is "false art" as you call it, can't it be redemptive in the sense that it it's essential for us to recognize and acknowledge the reality of nihilism in the world? For if we recognize and acknowledge nihilism and destruction, does it not make redemption all the more sweet?

Be back later. I can't get that YouTube video to load. The boys and I are off for a walk.

J.J. said...

CREATION (shalom, harmony)

creation ("genuine creative acts")


destruction ("false art")

CHAOS (nihilism, despair, emptyness)

I wanted to add arrows to make this more clear, but I can't figure out how to do it. Hopefully it makes sense.

Janine the Bean said...

I don't know. I watched the YouTube video. I can see what you mean in a sense, and yet...well...

The angels walk away from that scene (which is ugly, yes...and tending towards destruction and suicide it seems), but what they're walking away from still IS creation and art. I couldn't call it false art I guess.

I guess it comes down to the "what is art?" question. And I don't believe there to be a satisfactory definition of art.

God-exalting or not, art is art.

So, I write a poem that springs from my true feelings of despair. I want to kill myself. At that moment perhaps I DO. Is it redemptive in and of itself? No. But, perhaps in writing that work there is awakened in me a sense that there is more...that I have hope....that things can be better than they are.

I think that sometimes in viewing, hearing, reading works of nihilistic "art," they accomplish the exact opposite of what the artist intended.

Maybe. Maybe not. It's challenging to think about this though.

Janine the Bean said...


You're going to have to explain that a bit more....

Too bad blogger doesn't have a sketch pad.

JPB said...

OK, I don't think that darkened or edgy creation is nihilistic.

I don't think poetry about death (or even suicide) is nihilistic.

I don't think art has to be "god-exalting" or explicitly redepmptive.

I personally would put Sylvia Plath (dark as she is) in the category of genuine, life afirming art.

There's nothing wrong with the edge. Death and wrestling with it is a part of being human.

But ... I still think there is a line.

There is a LOVE of death that goes beyond engagement or wrestling or being human. There is a delight in destruction that sometimes spills out in acts of (for lack of a better word) 'nihilistic generative activity.'

"But, perhaps in writing that work there is awakened in me a sense that there is more...that I have hope....that things can be better than they are."

I think this is even a possible ENGAGEMENT with nihilism ... but something in me wants to preserve a category of ... destruction as something from which we can only turn. There is nothing redemptive, nothing re-creative in, say, the idea of jumping off a bridge and landing on a canvas as your final 'work of art.' That (if it happened and I think it will) would only be something you could turn from.

Whereas I think Plath's pained wrestling with death (even though it ended in her own suicide) is something I can turn to in order to learn more about what it means to be human.

I think of the Un-Man in C.S. Lewis's PERELANDRA.

I think of the buildings blowing up at the end of FIGHT CLUB.

I agree with you in that I REALLY hesitate to put much into that category intrinsically. I don't want to even take a half step towards the local Christian bookstore's notions of 'redemption' in art.

I'm more looking to preserve an opposite pole.

This is probably the same reason I continue to believe in an eternal hell despite having inclinations towards universalism.

There are, in the end, only two kinds of people, as CSL said, those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, "Thy will be done."

(And no, there are no implications for reformed theology one way or another in that statement properly understood -- at least not in my opinion.)

Janine the Bean said...

Okay...just clarifiying things. Hoping I'm not the proverbial nails on the chalkboard. :)

I know that you don't think art has to be explicitly redemptive. I know you THAT well.

Ah, Sylvia Plath...it's been a while. Back in college at OSU I remember reading "All the Dead Dears" and it really freaked me out. But I agree. Even though she herself committed suicide, her work is, though very dark, life affirming, as you say. It's wrestling, struggling, questioning, but useful to others.

I think that's the same reason I enjoyed James Joyce when many looked at me askance...he gave me another look into what it means to "be human." Raunchy at times, honest, confused, wandering....human.

"There is a LOVE of death that goes beyond engagement or wrestling or being human. There is a delight in destruction that sometimes spills out in acts of (for lack of a better word) 'nihilistic generative activity." ...

Okay, I understand what you're saying now. I don't remember that scene from Wings of Desire clearly in the context of the movie. Do you think that scene portrays a delight in destruction? I need to see the movie again. Thanks to you I saw it for the first time.

I understand what you mean. YOu made it much more clear in the last post. Ugh...jumping off the bridge onto canvas as your final "artwork!?!" I must say that in all my thoughts about suicide, I never imagined that one.

I didn't know you had inclinations towards universalism....I do as well, though perhaps that's for a later conversation

I agree with you in preserving the opposite pole. Sometimes I miss the classroom and discussions like this. Hard to talk over PB & J about it with the kids. They tend to give me blank stares. :)

Janine the Bean said...

I ought to point out that though I said I have inclinations towards universalism, I still hold fast that there is a hell and it won't be empty.

There's a lot in the Bible that would have to be thrown out for me to believe in universal salvation.

Just thought I'd clarify.

JPB said...

JJ made you write that didn't he?


Just kidding, of course. I also continue to believe in a hell. Though I understand the ATTRACTION of a 'purgatorial universalism' like that expressed in The Brother's Karamazov.

JPB said...

By the way, JJ, for some reason I overlooked your little sketch the first time through.

YES!!! Those are the poles I'm trying to preserve. One can move towards chaos and that's the opposite of genuine creativity.

However, moving from chaos towards slightly less chaos through genuine creativity is a real possibility. It depends upon where you're starting from.

Janine the Bean said...




write that.

You made me laugh out loud when I read your post.


Janine the Bean said...

Okay...he didn't MAKE me write it. My first post that I somehow deleted clarified that. Then I had to start over and left that part out.


JJ encouraged me to clarify. :)

Mainely Me said...

I've got to say, you guys were scaring me there for a little. Thanks for the clarifications. That's the deepest I've EVER been challenged to think about art. Very interesting discussion.

Janine the Bean said...

We're cool mom. No worries.

We had a nice discussion about this topic over dinner last night with Josh and Jodi.

I think I agreed with you from the beginning in that, as you say...

"There is a LOVE of death that goes beyond engagement or wrestling or being human. There is a delight in destruction that sometimes spills out in acts of (for lack of a better word) 'nihilistic generative activity.'"

This discussion could lead to many interesting discussions on art and creativity....for later dates.