Maybe it's because for the past few months I've been in such an uncertain period of my life, but I've recently been thinking quite a bit about joy. Unlike happiness, which is something that cannot be called upon or chosen, joy is something that we can, in fact, choose to have.
That reality has always kind of confounded me. Because my understanding of joy is usually a false one (mixed up with the idea that it is the same thing as happiness) I've always viewed verses that discuss choosing to have joy, or being overcome with joy, as quite difficult. I want someone to just tell me exactly what it means to choose joy. Joy is slippery, because it must be sincere, but it is also a clear decision.
In addition, the Bible not only encourages us to be joyful, it commands us. One passage that has been a stronghold for me for many years is this one from Romans 12:12:
Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. (NIV)
I don't know exactly what it means to be "joyful in hope," but I know that I'm commanded to do it. And as with so many other things, that is a good place to start. CS Lewis wrote a whole book that told the story of his journey to joy, called, appropriately, Surprised by Joy. In it, he discusses the ambiguous nature of joy, and explains what he thinks joy is:
Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with [happiness and pleasure]; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again... I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.
And later on Lewis writes:
All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still "about to be."
In Lewis's opinion, then, joy is something just out of our reach, something that we receive only when in communion with God. And yet we are clearly commanded, throughout the Bible, to rejoice, as in Philippians 4:4:
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! (NIV)
So what does it mean to choose joy? How do we separate joy from the health and wealth gospels and the wrongness of expecting Christianity to bring prosperity and happiness?
I think it has to do with the first verse I quoted. Being joyful in hope points to the fact that this is not something we can pull from inside ourselves, or manufacture. It is a constant choice to call ourselves back to the truth of hope--a reminder to fix our eyes on the grace and promises of Jesus. On a super practical level, it probably means reciting the words of the gospel to myself, meditating on the work of Jesus, speaking with God. It means questioning my motivations and assumptions, and forcing myself to weigh my words and my thoughts before sliding to extremes.
In this season of life, it means being grateful for the blessings poured out on me, and being patient in the uncertainty. It means trusting in God's provision, and not being cynical about my dreams. It means being faithful to wait, and pray, and cry maybe, and not giving in to the frustration of constantly being in a state of uncertainty.
The times in my life when I have had the deepest awareness of both the fragility and the beauty of life are when I've had to wait, and be joyful in hope. Especially during this season of Advent, let us rejoice in the goodness of a God who commands us to pursue something so very good for us.
I don’t know if it’s the fact that I’m getting older, or if there’s something specific to the way NYC has been shaping me, but I’ve recently been thinking a lot about being able to just be who I am. At this point, while I will always continue to change and grow, I am settling into the woman I am and the way I’ve been shaped. The process of questioning myself doesn’t end, but there are some things I know, and I want to have the ability to just be.
Specifically, I’ve been thinking about this in relation to art, and to being a Christian. I am much less worried about being a Christian than I have ever been before in my life, and that strikes me as encouraging and also kind of embarrassing. This is who I am, and yet for most of my life (and there are still many moments) I’ve been worried about how people will treat me, or what they’ll think, or how they might misperceive my beliefs. But I’m starting to believe deep in my core that it’s okay to just be. I am a Christian. It’s who I am. It’s okay.
And I am an artist. This post is about why I am starting to question the label “Christian artist.” This is not the first time I’ve questioned it, but it’s the first time I’m putting it into words. Questions about it have crossed my mind several times recently, most recently when I came across this article about Switchfoot and their contention of the label “Christian band.” (I know this is an old article. But hey, I’ve been busy.) When asked if they are a Christian band, their lead singer, Jon Foreman, says:
"To be honest, this question grieves me because I feel that it represents a much bigger issue than simply a couple SF tunes. In true Socratic form, let me ask you a few questions: Does Lewis or Tolkien mention Christ in any of their fictional series? Are Bach’s sonata’s Christian? What is more Christ-like, feeding the poor, making furniture, cleaning bathrooms, or painting a sunset? There is a schism between the sacred and the secular in all of our modern minds. The view that a pastor is more ‘Christian’ than a girls volleyball coach is flawed and heretical. The stance that a worship leader is more spiritual than a janitor is condescending and flawed."
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with calling oneself a Christian artist. But I agree with Foreman that there are certain unfair expectations that arise with the label. Like erroneously expecting a pastor to be more pure than his congregation, expecting an artist who is a Christian to only ever create art specifically referencing Christ is severely limiting. Would you expect a bank teller to make a Jesus reference to every customer who comes up to his booth? Or a journalist to work a Biblical narrative into each byline? And yet Christians who are artists are often unfairly expected to reference Christ in every piece of work they create.
The genesis of this, I believe, is complicated. I would argue that it is partly cultural, and partly theological. Culturally speaking, it’s closely tied to the fact that in many parts of the West, and certainly in the United States, the cultural consciousness surrounding art is unhealthy. I’ve written about this before, but because art is considered a luxury, only as good as its entertainment value, and primarily an industry--not as a way to share stories and therefore an integral part of life--artists tend to feel the need to heavily justify their decisions to be artists, whether in a monetary sense or otherwise.
Theologically, the matter is complicated by the fact that most art in the West during the Middle Ages revolved around the church. In addition, during the Reformation Christians developed the idea that any kind of art during worship needed to be heavily justified, and as art became more important outside of the church, this trickled down into art outside of worship as well. Today, these cultural and theological pressures often take the shape of artists telling their Christian friends that they are pursuing art so that they can either “bear witness in a secular industry,” or use their art as a platform for proclaiming the name of Jesus. Neither of which is a bad thing. But, I would argue, neither of which should be the primary goal in being an artist.
As Christians, we are called to bear witness first and foremost in every aspect of our lives. That is certain. But that is true for every Christian, no matter what profession, and it does not always take the form of explicitly naming the name. In some fields, like my father’s field as a physicist, it never does. The great thing about art is that it can take that form. But it doesn’t have to.
There is no need to justify a career in the arts any more than to justify a career in plumbing. Art is inherent to humans, and storytelling begins as soon as speech does. As Christians, sometimes we speak in our daily life about how much we love Jesus, and sometimes we speak about how much we love coffee. Artists should be free to speak about either as well. And really, there is a lot of laziness that has come about because of the concept of “Christian artists.” There are many beautiful pieces of sacred art, or stories about Christian experiences that are heartfelt and important. The Biblical narrative is woven through all of us, as Christians, and it should come out of our pores. But there are also plenty of pieces of horribly lazy art and stories with the name of Jesus plastered on simply because there is a market for it.
Artists who are Christians cannot be lazy. They cannot rely on a market, as many have. It’s much more difficult to tell a diversity of stories, some of which specifically name Jesus, and some of which don’t, and it’s difficult to interact at all times with a world that holds different beliefs and values and find ways to create and converse with artists outside the Christian faith. But it’s important. It’s a command, to all believers.
In the same way, Christians who are not artists must refuse to be lazy as well. It’s much easier to rely on a Christian label or art industry to provide entertainment and enjoyment, for us and for our kids. But we are called to engage in the world, and to feel the pulse of its heart. Doing the work of evaluating art--by artists who are both Christian and not--is important. Some of it you’ll have to throw away. Some of it will touch you deeply. And that’s good.
The bottom line is that we are Christians first, and that changes the way we think, speak and breathe. But once it gets into our blood and marrow, we as artists don’t need to be constantly questioning our profession. We fix our eyes on Jesus, and trust in the process of sanctification. Sometimes that means we’ll create art that speaks intimately of Christ’s sacrifice for us, and sometimes it means we’ll write a comedy sketch about the bus stop. Whatever project we’re working on, let’s not be afraid to just be.
*My brother Daniel recommended a book called Art and the Bible by Francis Shaeffer to me recently, which apparently speaks directly to this. Worth checking out!
Each of us, in our own way, lives in brokenness. Some people display it much more than others. But as I walk through my own season of pain, I am realizing more and more just how beautifully important brokenness can be.
All of our bodies are broken. Some are extremely broken; some are mostly healthy. In the grand scheme of things, I’ve been hugely blessed. I do not live with a debilitating disease, or a life-altering injury. And yet my body is imperfect. I have had depression; I have had eczema. And the older I get, the more I realize that my body is irreparably wrong.
The catalyst for these recent thoughts has been my problem with OCD tendencies. I do not have OCD--it takes quite a lot to be diagnosed as OCD, and to have it affect your lifestyle. But lots of people have tendencies, which manifest in various ways. Some people obsessively check outlets before leaving their house. Some people hum or clear their throats. I often find myself with ticks--feeling the need to take deep breaths, or touch the door handle on my way out of a room. These have always been things that I can control. Recently, I have been compelled to constantly twitch my back. This is annoying. This is wrong. This is out of my control. This is broken.
This is not uncommon, as I said. These tendencies come and go, and I’m not worried about my health. But what I have been realizing, as I struggle daily to turn off the part of my mind that’s telling me to twitch, is that I do not control my body. I do not have the ability to clamp down and force myself to be “normal.” Deep inside, there is something in me that’s broken. If I’m honest with myself, that thought is terrifying. And I’m sure that everyone else, if they’re honest, is terrified as well. At some point, we realize that we do not control our own selves. We realize that there is something within each of us that is broken and bent. Something we can’t fix. Paul speaks to this rather ugly truth quite eloquently in Romans chapter 8, when he says:
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (22-23)
And yet, this is where beauty comes. When I struggled with depression, I had to come to the world-grinding realization that I do not control my own mind. There are things I cannot fix. Through this process of facing my OCD tendencies, I have come to the same realization about my body. It, too, is wrong. It, too, is broken. And yet one step beyond that devastating realization is life. Because once I realized, in my depression, that I did not control my mind, I found myself resting on the promise that there is one who does. Likewise, though I cannot control my body, I know that it is under control. Broken and painful, it is not abandoned.
God uses many means to teach us about himself, but for me, the most consistent and effective way has always been to reveal my weakness to me. Just as I was called back by the pain of depression in my mind, I am called back by the pain of this (granted, pretty light) physical problem. As C.S. Lewis said in The Problem of Pain, “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” It may take months, or years, but I am continually surprised at the beauty that comes through our broken and wasted bodies and minds. And, like the state of my soul, the state of my body actually gives me hope. Right now, my soul is filled with bitterness and anger and pride and many other sins. But one day, my journey of sanctification will be over, and my soul will be free. Likewise, one day this broken, aching body will be new, and will be strong, and will be so beautiful. (And, because I’m not a gnostic, I know that the process is somehow interwoven and mingled together. And that makes this broken body even more essential.)
It’s important for us to know that we’re not alone. First, in the sense that we are not the only ones with strange ticks and problems and afflictions, or whatever your brand of brokenness may be. Humanity as a whole is dealing with a world full of crushed souls and bodies all wrapped up together and slowly dying. It is wrong to think that we are alone in the terror of living in bodies and minds that we don’t understand. And it is also important that we understand how truly understood we are. Not by ourselves, or by other humans. But by the God who created us, and feels our pain, and our ticks, and our addictions and compulsions. By the God who provides peace enough to bring us to the point of total fear and helplessness, and then remind us that he does not leave, or abandon. He knows every broken bit of us, more than we know ourselves, and he is faithful to preserve us, and promises to make us whole. Paul, continuing in Romans 8, provides us with a powerful assurance and beautiful promise:
“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” (26-27)
If there is a more powerful hope than that, I have never encountered it. We are held in the palm of God, prayed for by the Spirit, and rest in the advocation of Jesus. Even in the power of our awful broken minds and bodies and souls, we are known thoroughly and loved completely. Right now, I am thankful for a body that reminds me of my weakness, if only so that it can continually bring me back to reliance on Jesus, and I eagerly await a body that is strong and perfect.
How blessed we are.
This is a video of a piece I wrote and performed at my friend Sarah Carleton's fundraiser for International Justice Mission and Restore International. It was a really wonderful event...for more details on that, you can visit this site.
Writing and performing a piece about beauty is not easy, if only because it becomes so personal. In working through the process of writing, staging, and performing Currency, I had to become okay with the fact that what the piece says about other people, and what the piece says about me, are both equally apparent. The only way to have the audience experience questions I wanted them to ask was through the medium of my own explorations and insecurities, and my own physical work, presented on stage. That was very scary.
A few years ago I happened upon a quote by CS Lewis, in the novel That Hideous Strength. He writes: “The beauty of the female is the root of joy to the female as well as to the male, and it is no accident that the goddess of Love is older and stronger than the god.” I was captivated by this quote, mostly because I have felt its truth myself. It was from this line of thought that I ultimately found the pieces to create Currency. I began to wonder: what if we acknowledged our limitations, and our preferences in the area of beauty? How would it change the way we act, towards ourselves and toward others, if we were honest about the glory and the danger of being instruments that can give and receive pleasure, simply by being embodied?
In a world of extremes, these are dangerous questions. Like C.S. Lewis’s Ghost, in the excerpt quoted from The Great Divorce, it is so impossible to see ourselves without comparison. And perhaps the corruption we experience in this world, right down to the sex trade itself, can be traced back to the impossible task of seeing ourselves not through eyes that weigh, and compare, but through eyes made holy by the grace of God—the grace C.S. Lewis’s Spirit is so tenaciously trying to offer the shabby female Ghost.
In any case, these are questions we have to ask. Questions I had to ask, and I ask you to continue asking. Even at the risk of discovery.
Please forgive the quality of the video. And because the quality is bad, it's difficult to tell what I'm doing at the beginning of the piece. I am mimicking the photographs of women pasted to the wall. The song played at the beginning is "Grace," by the band U2, and the excerpt of dramatic reading in the middle is from "The Great Divorce," by CS Lewis.
This past Father’s Day my family went to my grandparents’ house. After watching the US Open and America’s Got Talent, the Miss USA Pageant came on and we watched as each state’s representative came out and was judged and eliminated. I sort of felt like I was watching a helicopter crash…it was terrifying, yet I couldn’t look away. But what really interested me was my cousins’ responses. Alethea and Charis are ten and seven, and they were both fascinated by the show. As they were leaving (their dad good-naturedly joking about how he didn’t think they needed to watch any more of the show) Charis kept asking what channel it was on, presumably so she could continue watching when she got home (chances of that = not good…)
Her response to the show reminded me of a quote from That Hideous Strength by CS Lewis, in which he discussed female beauty. He writes:
Did men and women both feel interested in the female body and even, though it sounded ridiculous, in almost the same way? A sentence rose to her memory. "The beauty of the female is the root of joy to the female as well as to the male, and it is no accident that the goddess of Love is older and stronger than the god." (60)
Charis was obviously thrilled by the beautiful women parading across the screen, and I realized that Lewis was right—beauty is just as, if not more, alluring to women as it is to men. A woman takes just as much joy in the female body as the man does, and it is no perversion that leads women to admire the beauty of other women.
But there is definitely perversion of some kind involved in the hunger for beauty that fuels things such as the Miss USA Pageant. Otherwise why would there be such a culture of youth worship, eating disorders, consumerism and all the other stuff that eats away at women? Like Hannah said in her last post, we live in community, and what other people think matters to us. And since being thought beautiful by both men and women is important to girls, there is ample opportunity for perversions of both the standard of beauty and the means to achieving that standard.
But does that mean that competitions like Miss USA are wrong? Should beauty be something that women are allowed to be good or bad at? Beauty—as our culture perceives it—has always been something you have or you don’t, but that is changing. If you aren’t educated, you can become educated. If you aren’t funny, or graceful, or musical, or talented you can work toward becoming more so. And now, if you aren’t beautiful, you can get plastic surgery or implants or botox. Is there a difference?
I guess my real question is whether it’s okay to view beauty as something to be cultivated and judged, like anything else. In a culture of extremes, it’s probably safer to say it’s not okay. We’ve gone beyond viewing beauty as something you have or you don’t, and begun to go to whatever extremes possible to attain it. So does this mean we have to throw out the entire concept of beauty as pleasing? We can’t deny that every one of us has a built-in preference that tends toward beauty.
Maybe the problem is that our perception of beauty has grown too narrow. We have turned into the shade in another work of CS Lewis, The Great Divorce, who runs and hides from the angels sent to escort her to heaven. Like her, our perception of beauty is too narrow to believe that we are capable of giving and taking joy in the way we were created, and we are left either flaunting our bodies, or hiding and saying, like her:
"Can't you understand anything? Do you really suppose I'm going out there among all those people, like this? …How can I go out like this among a lot of people with real solid bodies? …Have everyone staring through me." (59-60)
Maybe there’s nothing wrong with Charis admiring the women onscreen—there is certainly nothing unnatural about it. But there is so much more to be said and thought about when it comes to beauty and the way we treat it, that I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface. There is so much pain involved in the concept of beauty and how to use and appreciate it that instead of the joy that should come naturally when we’re confronted with beauty, envy, pride and bitterness very often obscure it. And that is definitely not how it should be.
- Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton
~ My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman
~ The Man Who Was Thursday, GK Chesterton