Mystery, Manners, and the Mind of the Maker
© 1997 by Paul Erlandson
Christian art represents the mysteries of God and creation, according to authors Dorothy Sayers and Flannery O'Connor
It would be an exaggeration, but not much of one, to say that everything I know about Christian Art was taught me by two women. The women, both certainly among our century's canonized fiction-writers, taught me their wisdom not only through their fiction directly, but through their essays.
The first author is Dorothy L. Sayers. I was first drawn by her mysteries (including the Lord Peter Wimsey stories), but I love equally for her works of non-fiction. Chief among these for any sort of artist must be The Mind of the Maker.
The second author is Flannery O'Connor. I thought at first that her startlingly excellent stories (and 2 novels) came from a sort of "idiot-savant" writer; that is, someone who did what she did exceedingly well but could not say why. It was not until I read her wonderful book of essays, Mystery and Manners, that I saw her to be fully self-conscious of what she was doing when she created.
In The Mind of the Maker Dorothy Sayers lays important theological groundwork for any Christian, but particularly for the Christian artist. She defines, better than I've seen done by anyone else, the "image of God" in man:
The first time I read that passage, scales fell from my eyes, and I knew what a privilege it was to be an artist. Indeed, as Sayers comments later in the same chapter:
Thus, if theology is "thinking God's thoughts after Him," then art is "doing God's deeds after Him." Dorothy Sayers thus gives theological justification to art and, indeed, raises the artist to an esteemed position. But what about the particular shape and nature of Christian art? For this lesson, I turned to the pages of Flannery O'Connor's Mystery and Manners.
Here I discovered how Christianity's sacramental view of life leads to "incarnational art." Our God is called "Maker" and "Creator" for His first recorded acts of making the world in six days, but surely His most peculiar and intense work of Creation had to be the Incarnation of the Word of God. Truly, all art can be seen as "making words flesh." O'Connor writes:
And later she writes:
The Christian Reconstructionist, viewing all of God's Creation as being under his Dominion, and "fair game" for the purpose of glorifying and enjoying Him forever, has an advantage over many of his brethren in Protestantism, where Manichean or semi-Platonic ideas of matter have dominated. We are not afraid to use matter to glorify God, for He has done it Himself, both in the original Creation, and in the Incarnation.
O'Connor not only tells us (in Mystery and Manners) how to be a good writer. She also advises how to be a good reader:
Christian art does not "explain" the mysteries of God. It re-presents them using concrete reality. And O'Connor is definite about saying that art must be concrete and "incarnational." This is my goal, particularly with my paintings. If you have ever seen the results of any painter's efforts to do a painting about "love" or about "hope" or "hopelessness", and then compared this work to any painting of a boat or a child or even a child's toy, the difference is startling. The former communicates nearly nothing, while the latter, penetrating the concrete as O'Connor describes, communicates deep mysteries.
It is the same with songwriting, theater, sculpture, or poetry. A very dear friend once spoke of her poetry by saying, "I don't do form." by which she meant that she wrote poetry with no fixed rhyme, meter, etc. I held my tongue, but nearly replied: "There IS nothing but form." Before God began the Genesis Creation, the world was "without form and void." So is much of modern poetry and modern art.
Only the Christian artist, with his sacramental view of the world, is
equipped to do God's deeds after Him, to take what is formless and
create something new. Perhaps all this is obvious to the reader; it
was not obvious to me before I read Sayers and O'Connor. Dorothy
Sayers has told me what to do as an artist and why. Flannery O'Connor
has taught me how. How can I ever thank them? I suppose by sharing
their words with you, and inviting you to read them further.
Updated by: Matt Bynum