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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:

"Is it his immortal soul, his rationality, his self-consciousness, his free will, or what, that gives him a claim to this rather startling distinction? A case may be argued for all these elements in the complex nature of man. But had the author of Genesis anything particular in his mind when he wrote? It is observable that in the passage leading up to the statement about man, he has given no detailed information about God. Looking at man, he sees in him something essentially divine, but when we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the "image" of God was modeled, we find only the single assertion, "God created." The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things."

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:

"It is the artist who, more than other men, is able to create something out of nothing."

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:

"The artist penetrates the concrete world in order to find at its depths the image of its source, the image of ultimate reality."

And later she writes:

"The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality ...

But the real novelist, the one with an instinct for what he is about knows that he cannot approach the infinite directly, that he must penetrate the natural human world as it is. The more sacramental his theology, the more encouragement he will get from it to do just that."

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:

"The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery."

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.

Last updated: 12 April 2006
Updated by: Matt Bynum