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!
Okay, it’s kind of a love story. But only in a secondary, frustrating kind of way. Let me explain.
I have always felt like I was “over” the story of Romeo and Juliet. Even the first time I heard the plot explained, when I was probably around ten years old, I thought it was kind of dumb. Romeo and Juliet kill themselves over a misunderstanding? Seriously? When I got older, and watched, among other productions, the lush Baz Lurhmann Romeo + Juliet, I liked it a little better. But it still rang hollow for me. I still hated the idea that people held it up as the greatest romance of all time. And I didn’t want to read it because it just seemed kind of silly.
However, my Shakespeare class will be working on Romeo and Juliet, so this week, I actually read it for the first time. About half way through, I realized that I had been right: it is not the greatest love story of all time. It was never meant to be. But it is a very, very good play. A play that is so much more than the silly, passionate sob story it is misrepresented as.
My first realization hit me about the time Romeo and Juliet decide to get married. This happens a little over a third of the way through the play, on the same night that Romeo and Juliet first meet. Now, Shakespeare sped the timetable up quite a bit on everything that happened in his plays, but even taking that into account, this is a pretty rash decision. Especially since the two households are on such bad terms, I kept thinking, “Wouldn’t it be a better idea to wait, and plan this out? Isn’t anyone going to tell these two that this is a really bad idea?”
And then it hit me. That’s exactly what I’m supposed to be thinking at that point. Shakespeare didn’t mean for people to say, “What a great decision! Love conquers all! Yay Romeo and Juliet!” He wanted people to have my exact reaction--to realize that yes, this is a terrible decision. Romeo and Juliet’s passion is certainly legitimate, but rarely in any of Shakespeare’s plays does “love at first sight” hold much weight. Rosalind and Orlando spend weeks in the forest getting to know each other. Viola and Orsino are in close companionship for a long time while love blooms. Benedick and Beatrice spar and jest and flirt for years. It’s true, some of Shakespeare’s more minor couples do get together after a quick glance (Miranda and Ferdinand, Hero and Claudio) but by and large, love takes time in Shakespeare (and in the case of Miranda and Ferdinand, Miranda has a wise father who counsels them to take time to get to know each other before getting hitched.) So when Romeo and Juliet suddenly, rashly decide to get married the very next day, I don’t think it was intended as a triumph of love. I think it was a chance for the audience to ask, “Where are these kids’ parents??”
And that is what the play is about. It’s about what happens when the guidance that should be there, isn’t. It’s about the consequences of a family’s decisions on the younger, less wise members. It’s about a girl and a boy who can’t talk to their parents. That is why this play is beautiful, and horrible, and important. Not because of the fervent but misguided romance of Romeo and Juliet. Because no one is there to stop it.
Both Romeo and Juliet are smart and courageous, and very likable. But Juliet, we’re told, is not even fourteen yet. Romeo is probably older, but still very young. His youth is betrayed at the beginning of the play, when his storyline starts with him pining after Rosaline, only to switch his affections to Juliet when he sees her at the ball. The Friar, perhaps the only real source of wisdom in the play, chides him later for this sudden switch. But neither the Friar, nor Juliet’s nurse--the only two people who know what’s going on between Romeo and Juliet--have any real authority over the two lovers. They both try to dissuade them, but the nurse is so ineffectual that Juliet just laughs off her advice, and the Friar is likewise ignored. And though he gives good advice, by the end he is as cowardly as any, and leaves Juliet in the crypt to stab herself.
What struck me most was the tone of the love scenes. Shakespeare was still quite young when he wrote the play, and that youthful abandon--that whole-hearted passion--is abundant in the love scenes. They were all the more poignant for being so misguided; I felt that if the situation had been right, Romeo and Juliet could have been a beautiful power couple, with more eloquence and honesty than perhaps any other Shakespearean duo. But the love scenes are sandwiched between scenes of incredible violence--Romeo’s duel, Juliet’s confrontation with her parents--and ultimately end in the deaths of not just Romeo and Juliet themselves, but also Paris, who did nothing wrong but himself love Juliet. This is a love story gone all wrong, and not just because of the outside influences working on Romeo and Juliet. Because they themselves do not have the wisdom or the patience to deal with what is happening to them.
The scene that most broke my heart was not the final death scene. We all know that’s coming from a mile away. What just killed me was the scene in which Juliet’s parents tell her she must marry Paris, and she, already married to Romeo, refuses. Juliet, pleading, begs her mother to hear her. Lady Capulet replies: “Talk not to me, for I’ll not speak a word./Do as thou wilt, for I have done with thee.” She exits. I cried. I can’t impose on the text what it doesn’t say, but it makes me wonder what kind of relationship Juliet had with her parents previous to the opening of the play. If neither her mother, nor certainly her father, will hear her passionate pleas to delay the marriage, we must suppose that they have no real relationship with her. And while we don’t get to see Romeo’s interactions with his parents, we must assume that since he goes to the Friar for advice and comfort (and has before, it is implied) his relationship with his parents is likewise not one of counsel or influence.
Some people focus on the political morals in the play--the chastisement against feuding factions, the reminder to “make love, not war.” But I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that. Because Shakespeare was the great playwright that he was, we sell him short by pitting Romeo and Juliet against the other characters in the play. It’s not as simple as saying, “Romeo and Juliet were good, and they were slain by the hatred of their families.” Romeo and Juliet were very flawed, and very young and stupid, and they were slain by the lack of wisdom available to them. It is a political play, it is a romance (with some of the most beautiful poetry found in any play)--but most of all it is a cautionary story about what happens when parents fail their children. Fail them by nurturing hate, or by neglecting to cultivate a relationship in which they are imparting honesty and wisdom. The result, Shakespeare tells us, is a generation of beautiful souls wasted.
Once, during my time at Wheaton, I went downtown to Chicago to observe tech at Lookingglass, a prominent theater in the city. As I walked through the streets, I noticed for perhaps the first time that my shell was growing tougher--my face was set in a rock hard expression that was unrecognizable as the woman I really was. I texted a friend and asked, “How do you walk around a city with an open heart, and not as if you own it?”
“What else is love?” he texted back.
I was amazed at the complexity held in that simple response. And since that day, I have thought back to his words and wondered at my own idea of love. Can it be so large? Can it be carried on the hips, and held in the fingers, so that people on the street can be witness to it?
Since my decision to move to New York City to pursue a masters degree in theater, there have been a lot of thoughts swirling around in my head. And the memory of that big city’s--well, bigness--has come back to me. The swinging hips and turned up nose feeling. The feeling that I am somehow less than everyone else, and I have to overcompensate for that. The feeling of being scared.
My acting teacher in college used to say, “If something scares you, it’s worth doing.” (Within reason, obviously.) In the context of acting classes, that usually meant taking a risk on a scene; wearing something you wouldn’t normally, or choosing to reveal something about yourself that was personal. But what I began to realize, through those small risks, is how much of my life was ruled by fear. How many situations I flee because I don’t have the right category to file them under. How many conversations I cut short because I’m afraid of where they might go.
My teacher also used to tell us, during class, to have “soft eyes.” My immediate response to this was emotional--having soft eyes, at the time, meant being open hearted and ready to take what came. And somehow, these two ideas--that of doing things that scare me, and that of having soft eyes and an open heart--became wrapped up into one single choice. The choice to live my life with these ideas as a reality.
My time in Pittsburgh, these last two years, has been almost like a rest--a quiet period of growth and settling. Looking back on it, I can see how everything I have done has been useful, and good, and has helped me grow deeper into myself and my faith. But Pittsburgh, for me, has not been a place that has challenged me to combine fear with softness.
My sense is that New York will be just such a place. First of all, because I am scared to go. Much less scared than I would have been two years ago, but scared nonetheless. Scared, rightly so. The city--and especially the theater scene--is one of the fastest and smartest in the world. I am a girl who finds it challenging to attend a new church by herself. The world of networking and connections will be crazy hard for me. But I can't help thinking that what's important is not being fearless--it's recognizing fear and being okay with it. Understanding what scares you, and doing it anyway.
And I know this: God has provided this opportunity, and he has been preparing me. I also know the truth that if something scares me--with that wholesome, slightly thrilling fear--it’s worth doing. But how am I going to walk around a city that frightens me, and still keep my eyes soft and my heart open?
If the answer was easy, it wouldn’t be worth discovering. And my story is my own, and no one else’s. There is beautiful comfort in that thought, because it means that even if I move to New York and hate every second of my time there, the pieces of my life will still add up to a story worth telling. But I suspect that if I’m honest about my fear, and own it, and reveal it, and keep my eyes soft and my heart open, I will find things to give and to take during my time of studying and creating and breathing stale city air.
Because really, what else is love?
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 semester I took a class called ‘Acting Shakespeare,’ a class that I was incredibly intimidated by. The thought of memorizing Shakespeare weekly for an entire semester was very daunting, but once the class started I realized that the scariest thing about the class was not memorizing the words or understanding what the heck they meant; the biggest challenge was doing justice to the characters created by William Shakespeare. And I realized that Shakespeare knew women. Really, really knew them.
This was a surprise to me. Through my experience with Shakespeare before the class, I knew that many of his female characters had great lines. But after studying and scanning and getting up and speaking some of those lines, I found myself connecting on a whole new level with the women whose lines I was saying. It was while I was weeping before the class as Hermione, having felt something pull at me in her lines:
How will this grieve you
When you shall come to clearer knowledge that
You thus have publish’d me. Gentle my lord,
You scarce can right me throughly then, to say
You did mistake
that I was really sold on Shakespeare. Really, really sold. This guy has something to say to every situation.
And he understood women. He understood them because he understood humans, probably, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive. Most of his female characters were smart as whips—many smarter than their male love-interests. And because Shakespeare had this understanding of women, he did what he could with them, and then when he needed a little more freedom he put a pair of pants on them and they paraded around the stage speaking as women in disguise.
It’s their wit that makes them impressive, but it’s their struggles and their hearts that make them unforgettable. Shakespeare’s characters are so much more than the intellectual, hard-to-understand thees and thous people commonly think of. Even Juliet, the archetypal girlish lover is so much more than her swooning stigma. How beautiful are her words—spoken from an incredibly agile mind—when she says to Romeo,
They are but beggars that can count their worth
But my true love is grown to such excess
I cannot sum up sum of half my wealth.
I guess it’s that blend of strength and beauty that made me first fall in love with Shakespeare’s women, but there’s more. The situations he puts his characters in are so insightful. How did he know to write about Phoebe from As You Like It, and the more likable Olivia from Twelfth Night who are both proud and bored—how did he know that what they really want is just to be seen for who they truly are? Play Olivia as a woman who is beautiful and just wants to be praised, and she’s flat. Play her as a woman who is beautiful and has known only praise, and then is faced with a man who tells her that he’s not in love with her and calls her out for her pride—play her as that startled, intrigued woman and she breathes with life. Even if it means being told to their faces that they are “too proud,” women want to be seen. Shakespeare knew that.
How did he know to write about Helena, the lover from A Midsummer Night’s Dream who is beautiful, and smart, and in love with a man who doesn’t love her? How did he know to give her a part where she knows she’s too good to be chasing after Demetrius, and yet does it anyway? How did he know to write about Rosalind, the brilliant leading lady of As You Like It who gets in over her head and then tortures the man she loves with her playmaking because she’s dressed as a man and can’t stand the pain their interactions cause? How did Shakespeare know that it never works out well to pretend to be something you’re not, and how did he bring his female leads to that beautiful conclusion in so many of his plays?
There is poetry in Shakespeare’s plays, along with the wit. But it’s not the beauty of the words that makes Shakespeare’s work enduring. It’s the fact that he knew humans. He knew what they needed, and how they acted, and what they said and what they should have said. I’m convinced that my acting teacher is right—Shakespeare is not for English majors. It’s for actors. His work is worth reading and studying, but it was meant first to be seen on a stage. Of course an actor has to do the work of scanning and looking up words and figuring out what she’s saying. But if an actor truly knows her character, I’m convinced that Shakespeare’s plays will make more sense to the audience just by hearing her speak than if the audience spent hours studying the meaning of the text.
I worked a lot on Hermione, the wronged queen from The Winter’s Tale. After reading the play, I still don’t know why she comes back to life, and whether there is some deeper meaning in the text. But from working on her as an actor, I have learned about her forgiveness, and her grief, and her constant dignity. Those things—and the things that I still can’t articulate about her but can feel within me—are the things I think Shakespeare meant us to remember about her. Those are the things that made him a brilliant playwright, and a frighteningly accurate observer of human behavior.
So go watch some Shakespeare. Better yet, pull out a play, do the work of understanding the text, and then speak it out loud. Embody it. Figure out why the lines that are supposed to be iambic pentameter have an extra couple syllables. Shakespeare didn’t just make mistakes—he always had a reason. His women—and his men too—can tell you something about those reasons.
~ Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, ND Wilson
~ He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
~ An American Childhood, Annie Dillard
~ On the Incarnation, Athanasius of Alexandria