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The Art of Embodiment by Alissa Wilkinson

How do artists teach the church to practice a more fully human faith? Atlantic and Washington Post writer Alissa Wilkinson believes artists can teach the Church how to fail well, develop a discipline of practice, and understand that some things in life are simply a mystery.

A few years ago, I was at a conference in front of a room full of artists, participating in a conversation with an art historian and avid collector. It was a freewheeling conversation about many things: patronage, travel, and the role of art and beauty in social justice.

In the midst of the conversation, someone asked about artists and the church—reasonable, as the conference we were at was sponsored by Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, a church that is notable for, among other things, consistently and vibrantly supporting their own arts community. The attendee asked how she might also encourage her own church to be supportive of the artists in its community.

I’ve been in what’s usually called the “faith and arts” community for a considerable length of time and worked for several organizations devoted to helping people of faith make better art, so I’d heard this question raised before. The stories I’d heard (and known from firsthand experience) were of well-meaning churches who “supported” their artists by asking them to donate free labor in the form of murals, musical performances, and so on. Or I’d heard stories about artists who had left or mostly-left the church entirely because they were on the fringes, ostracized because their work was transgressive or frightening or just not easily understood.

But that day, when I thought about answering the attendee’s question, I was thinking about something else.

At that moment, I was in the middle of my first quarter of a Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing, and starting to feel what it was to be “an artist.” Growing up, I considered myself an artist: I learned ballet as a child, then switched to classical performance, where I trained as a pianist and, later, picked up the flute, organ, violin, and a variety of related instruments.

But starting an MFA was an entirely different thing. It was my first time truly experiencing what it meant to create on a regular basis. I had learned to perform, and now I was learning to make things. I was working for hours, and hours, and hours every week, and writing and deleting sentences, and reading everything I could to try and figure out how to do this bewildering thing.

So when I thought about how I’d answer the question, I realized that I was less interested in or knowledgeable about how churches could support their artists—although there are many great resources on that point. I realized that there was another question I hadn’t heard much.

How can artists support their churches?

And not just by volunteering their skills where they’re needed—though I tend to think that artists, especially working artists, ought to think about ways to support their churches that don’t have as much to do with their vocation. I’ve heard from professional musician friends that working in the nursery, where nobody cares who they are or how great their last album was, is a rich and humbling experience.

Instead, I was thinking about what artists learn that has to do with the Christian life. That is, I believe that being an artist, as in any vocation, requires developing skills and gifts that are part of the richness of a spiritual life. So just as people with highly developed logical skills (lawyers, for instance) can help the church understand what it is to reason well, or as people blessed with the gift of nurturing others can teach and model the practice of hospitality and compassion, artists develop practices that help them make art—and help the whole church to grow.

So, then, what can artists teach the church? Here’s a few thoughts.

Failing Well

The hardest thing for me to accept when I first started my MFA—even though I should have known better—was that I would often write things that I thought were pretty good and submit them to my mentor, only to realize a month later that they were, in fact, awful. There’s nothing quite like being embarrassed by your own work to make you aware of how much you fail.

Every artist knows what it is to fail, just as every athlete knows what it is to fall or miss the shot or botch the goal. And artists—really great artists—make a lot of terrible work before they start making good work. There are no immediate geniuses or surefire hits for artists. You produce a lot of dreck.

Of course, this can be disheartening: why even bother, right? You’ll never be good enough. But artist lore is rife with stories of people who sent the book manuscript out forty times and got thirty-nine rejection letters, or who labored in obscurity for decades, their families and friends looking at them in pity, before they finally made a great work.

Similarly, for Christians, failure is part of life. Given that we can’t live perfect lives because we’re fallible humans, we’re guaranteed to fail.

When we realize this, it can be very frustrating. About nine years ago, I started going to a church in which we knelt and verbally confessed our sin to God every single week. A few weeks in, I realized I was getting frustrated because every time I knelt down, I realized I’d just done that last week, and I had a whole new set of things to confess. And I would next week. And next week. And for the rest of my life.

And then I realized that was sort of the point.

Artists understand this intuitively—and, what’s more, can speak to it directly and model a right response by being faithful to their own calling. Every time they fall, they get up again, buoyed by the grace of what they are called to do in their very being.

Practice as Formation

Along with this knowledge of failure is the reality of practice. Every kid who took piano knows this. As a former piano teacher, I know this keenly: every kid who quits piano does it because they just don’t want to practice.

The thing is that practice makes us into certain kinds of people, and it helps shape us into the sort of people who love particular things. I always use this example in the classroom: when I started playing the piano, I loved it, because I was seven years old and it was new and exciting. About six months in, I stopped loving it. I wanted to do anything other than practice.

But my parents made me stick with it, and then, a magical thing happened (about ten years later!): I began to love piano. It became a relaxing, enjoyable thing to sit in front of a piano and play whatever I liked. I don’t practice as regularly as I might, but I can say that I am a person profoundly shaped by my practice of the piano. Similarly, I learned to love to write by writing, writing, writing and hating it a lot of the time.

The spiritual life of the Christian is all about practice. Sometimes people tell me they stopped going to church because they didn’t feel like they loved God or believed in him anymore, and I understand the sentiment. But at the same time, I go through long stretches of life where the only thing that makes me feel at all like I’m clinging to faith is the practice of the Christian life.

I don’t have to believe it in my heart before I can do it; I do it so that I can believe.

Knowing Bodily

Finally, there’s an odd thing that artists understand: we learn through our bodies. We understand the world in intuitive ways that don’t totally make sense. I can’t explain it, and it’s not really rational.

I remember the first time I realized that when I sat down to write something, I rarely knew what I was about to do. I had an image or a sentence or an idea in my head. Then, the act of sitting down at the keyboard and typing that out triggered something else. And that new thought triggered another one. Before you knew it, I had an essay.

And another thing: not only did I have an essay, but often that essay was filled with thoughts and images that I didn’t even know were in my head. They came springing up through the act of writing—which is a profoundly embodied activity. When I’m done writing, my fingers are a little sore from typing or moving the pen across the page furiously. My rear end hurts. I even have to drink coffee or a glass of wine to make it feel right. I’m aware of myself as a creature, not just a brain, when I write.

All those things work together to help me put down words that make me discover things about myself and my world. It is always surprising. I am by nature a person who is skeptical when I hear people talking about “the muse” or “inspiration” or all those things, but I know what they’re getting at: there is something that is non-intellectual and non-rational about the creative act.

Similarly, sometimes we get too dependent on our brains for our faith. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that we should check our brains at the church door, or that we should become anti-intellectual or skeptical of education. (I’m a college professor!)

But sometimes we expect that we will understand everything that happens in our religious lives—that we’ll be able to explain things. We get into theological trouble by trying to perfectly explain things like the problem of evil or the Trinity or the Incarnation.

It seems to me that artists are more comfortable with the idea that some things are simply wrapped in mystery—that we can’t explain everything about existence or, more, about God’s existence with words.

Artists can teach us that some things must simply be felt or intuited—that we learn them through the daily, embodied actions of life: eating, drinking, loving, walking, kneeling. And they teach us—through their songs, their paintings, their poetry, their dance—about mysteries too great for our finite minds.

Artists can teach the church about what it is to be more fully human, and that? That is a marvelous thing.

Image sourced from Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.