Newbery winning author Madeleine L’Engle attempts to explain a Christian approach to art in her classic book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. Like many of us, she finds the term “Christian art” distasteful and instead spends much of the book exploring faith and creativity. It’s a rambling journey that I recommend for any creative person of faith.
It can be difficult read—I hated it the first time I read it, as an assignment in college. But when I went back to it with fresh eyes and under no compulsion, I loved it. We own multiple well-underlined copies in my house.
While I could underline half the book and reproduce the quotes here, I’ll just give a few quick examples:
Show, Don’t Tell
I love this quote because I think it’s so timely and urgent for today:
“We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
Today the great debates all seem to be political and full of anger, exaggeration and anything but actual communication. Somehow we adopt the same style in our churches and are shocked when it doesn’t work. We have to communicate with love.
Instead of trying to win an argument, we should simply be sharing what we’ve found:
“Picasso says that an artists paints not to ask a question but because he has found something and he wants to share—he cannot help it—what he has found.”
Embrace the Questions
Much of the book is about embracing the question instead of the answer, of pursuing the child-like wonder that we all somehow manage to lose. L’Engle quotes Augustine: “If you think you understand, it isn’t God.” Too often we have all the right answers and we miss out on the mystery. As artists and creatives, it’s our job to embrace the mystery of the spirit.
L’Engle talks about the impossibility of faith, of all the bizarre, ridiculous things that we need faith to believe in. She calls the basis of all story the what if. But the church too often shies away from those difficult what ifs. L’Engle warns us of this danger: “But if we do not offer a groping generation the real thing, they will look for it elsewhere.”
As a writer, L’Engle spends some time talking about language, specifically with her frustrations at making everything gender neutral. But she comes to a powerful conclusion about language that may offer us some small hope:
“Ultimately it will be the artists who will change the language (as Chaucer did, as Dante did, as Joyce did), not the committees.”
My immediate thought is the tired Christianese we’re always lamenting. It’s our job to change it.