Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Themes in Art

I hope everyone around here read about Jeffrey Overstreet and his Auralia Thread books last week. They are intriguing books, and they managed to spawn some interesting conversation. (I started this post the day after the tour, but it has taken me time to finish my evolving thoughts)

Blog posts looked at the "Christian" aspect of these books, and asked about the process an author comes up with themes for their work.

Steve Rice had some strong opinions of the books. If I understood him correctly, he felt that a Christian artist ought to visibly show their faith in their works. He quoted a few verses about a light not being put under a basket and speaking from the heart (that if Christ is in your heart, how can we not help but speak of what is there).

He also brought up secularism, implying that Cyndere's Midnight was secular because possible themes or morals gleaned from the book weren't specifically Christian enough, undistinguishable from good messages from non-Christian books. I'm not quite sure how "secular" is the right term to use here.

Steve had passionate views, and I'm not trying to put him down, just to put out a point of disagreement. We may chalk this up to an "agree to disagree" type of issue. I have long felt and advocated on this blog that God is interested in beauty for beauty's sake, and not everything created in His name has to have a specific religious or practical function. I've gone to Francis Schaeffer's book Art and the Bible on this point a lot. One of his examples is a free-standing column in Solomon's temple that had no functional purpose from an engineering or spiritual standpoint, other than to add architectural beauty to the temple.

I don't think from the books themselves or Jeffrey's words about them that he is trying to hide any message. I think he is trying to write to a standard that he has set for himself regarding beauty of language and power of story. He has themes he sees, but he is reluctant to blurt them out and color what readers will take from the book. I certainly see Christian truths in his books, but it seems he's trying to let the reader decide what themes they see. What I do have a problem with is people judging motives without fully understanding what the artist is doing.

Also, what about Biblical books like Song of Songs and Esther. The Lord isn't mentioned in either of them, but we know the inspiration that comes from these books. The inspiration is derived from the interpretation of the books, even when it is not directly spelled out in the text.

I wish that Steve had taken more information from the fine interviews with Jeffrey. Robert Treskillard has a fine interview with the author, doing a discussion style back and forth. Then Shane Deal follows with a separate interview that further explores Jeffrey's style of writing and his purpose in his work. Make sure to read down to an extensive discourse in the comments, as there are points no one should miss.

The next point of discussion comes from my friend Becky Miller, in her discussion based off of Steve Rice's post from above. Becky and I have had a friendly disagreement on the nature of Christian art ;), and she talks about the intentionality of theme. Now, I agree with her that if there is a specific theme an author wants to communicate, and they do so skillfully, that it doesn't lessen the artistic value at all. In fact, I happen to believe that theme is very important to the structure of a novel. Otherwise the work is not going to have any strength to impact a reader. She mentions "backing into a theme," where Jeffrey talks about writing and letting the theme come to him rather than knowing it beforehand. I don't think I could fully do that (the control freak in me, I suppose), but I believe, if nothing else, from Jeffrey's experience, that it can happen.

My question is: if a Christian author writes a book that doesn't have explicitly gospel-specific themes, is that work "Christian fiction?" I see reflections of the "One True Myth," as C.S. Lewis termed the gospel, in Cyndere's Midnight? But I can't point to a specific Christ-figure or other allegorical character in the book. If the criteria to be called Christian fiction is to have a specific gospel feature, directly showing God, then I suppose Cyndere won't meet that criteria. I think Jeffrey's two books could have published by secular houses without changing the content, but I have to believe that he is trying to accomplish something in the market he's currently in.

I wrote a short story that doesn't directly deal with God, just in passing. Yet the themes of sanctity of life and fidelity in marriage are the points that make the story, IMO. The sanctity of life theme was what I had in mind when I started, but the marriage theme surprised me in many ways. Both points are informed and hopefully reflect a Biblical worldview, but the story wasn't the place to bring out all aspects of the Biblical narrative.

All art communicates something. Fiction is by nature more direct than other forms, such as visual arts. An artist fools themseleves if they think it won't communicate something. Sometimes an artist may choose a specific theme to explore up front, while others may see what emerges in the process. Both are valid starting points, and I maintain that a Christian artist, no matter their starting point, will reflect a Biblical worldview if they are truly transformed by their walk.

Becky has another post titled, Fiction Is... I had to laugh at her last comment this morning, because even though we've playfully seemed to disagree, she had this to say:

What I would like to see Christians come to is the idea that fiction can actually say something important. Does that have to be the plan of salvation? No. Does it need to be laid out overtly? No.
There is a third way, an artistic way of weaving in a theme so that readers “get it” without being told it.

And with this, we're in total agreement!

If you're interested in this discussion of Art, Creativity, and how it plays out in Christian expression, I invite you to check out these different posts and perspectives. It has been a highly intriguing discussion!


  1. Hey Jason, thanks for stopping by my blog! I wish I'd been able to read the book ahead of time, too -- now that I've actually been part of the tour long enough, I've requested books and look forward to writing actual reviews ;). Appreciate your thoughts above. Your points about Song of Solomon and Esther are well-taken. Jesus' parables (while a very different form of storytelling than, say, Esther) also steer away from directly mentioning God. They use the humdrum things of life to speak truth, and those who wanted to know more had to seek deeper meaning. It wasn't all laid out for them.

    Blessings :).

  2. Great coverage of the issues, here, Jason. I think you and I are in agreement on a lot of this. I started to wonder if it was only me!

  3. Thanks for the comments, both of you. Don't worry Robert, you're not alone! It's good to have compadres on the journey though.

    I need to finish my posts on Culturally Savvy Christian by Dick Staub, because that book has really informed my thoughts on this as well. I also need to finish Culture Making by Andy Crouch. There's a couple books to consider reading on this subject.