Strange New Thoughts

The place where I slam down gauntlets and pick up the pieces.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Art on God's Refrigerator

I have in front of me a small scrap of plywood, 2”x4”, almost rectangular, except that it’s slightly skewed and therefore a bit of a parallelogram. On it my son Jeffrey (then seven) drew with colored markers a scene he called “A Playground at Night”. We were at the time in temporary exile from Latin America for the birth of my youngest daughter, and we lived in a ramshackle house in Kila, Montana. Kila doesn’t even have a gas station, but it does have a post office and a school, whose playground provided Jeffrey with artistic inspiration as well as a place to play.

This tiny work of art, with its deserted swings and slide, snowcapped peaks looming in the background, and black birds plying the night sky, really does something for me. It doesn’t dazzle you with its realism or detail, it simply evokes a time and place on a scrap of wood rescued from the kindling box. I think I’d enjoy it even if it weren’t drawn by my own kid. I myself could draw a much more realistic version of the same thing (as could Jeff, now twelve and blossoming as an artist), but it wouldn’t have the same poignant, mysterious charm.

As I get to know the Creator better, I begin to see how our own creative efforts can have value for Him, even though our attempts to artistically interpret His creation pale in comparison with His works. Because we are made in His image, we are creative, and our creativity is significant. Our power to create is the very essence of the divine spark (don’t forget that the first thing He does in Genesis 1:1 is to create.) And I wish to propose something I believe about God that may possibly count as a ‘strange new thought’: God’s capacity for enjoyment and appreciation are as limitless as His love, power and knowledge.

I’ll try to explain: When Michelangelo paints the ceiling fresco on the Sistine Chapel, when Queen and Led Zeppelin put the finishing touches on “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Stairway to Heaven”, when Sir Christopher Wren designs St Paul’s Cathedral, when Fred Astaire dances with such sophistication and elegance that he makes his partner look as good as he does, when Bill Cosby or Gary Larson make you laugh so hard that coffee comes out your nose, these are not necessarily the same for God as a baby’s first scribbles are to us. Rather, He has more ability than we do to appreciate and admire, to pick up on subtleties that we miss, to feel the artist’s intent, and to judge the work’s creative merit as well as the moral and spiritual state of the artist in question.

God will one day judge all mankind, including, say, Elvis Presley. That may or may not go well with the King (Elvis, not God), but meanwhile, God has heard every single song that Elvis ever recorded or performed live. He’s heard the alternate takes and unissued versions. He knows the song order of every album, including the imports. He knows who played guitar on “Mystery Train” as well as “Suspicious Minds”. He knows everything about Elvis, and even though He knows it by dint of His omniscience, I believe He also knows it the way a fan might. God could talk shop about anything with anyone, with perfect enthusiasm and unparalleled insight. We can’t even imagine how alive He is, how passionate, how cool. (Trumpeter Phil Driscoll once commented that one of Satan’s biggest lies is that God isn’t hip.) God is the biggest Elvis fan in the universe.

That doesn’t mean He’s an idolator, gushing over every half-baked movie Elvis made, or every mediocre song he recorded. A true fan can be critical of his favorite artists, and nobody’s standards are higher than God’s. That being said, artistic perfection or excellence aren’t the same as moral perfection. Jim Morrison or Charlie Parker (the list goes on forever) could be great artists and performers without serving God or even being ‘good’ people. Meanwhile, excellence within a given style of artistic endeavor may admit all kinds of individuality and imperfection. Picasso or Bob Dylan may take artistic chances that wouldn’t be appropriate for Rembrandt or Pavarotti. And here I diverge, at the risk of being, well, uh, divergent:

I was talking with my kids one day about what constitutes good art. Like many talented kids, they want to be professional artists - now. They see photorealism and wish they could draw that way. They’re frustrated with the artistic limitations common to most grade-schoolers. “Wait a minute,” I say to them, and show them a Peanuts comic strip by Charles Schulz. “Does that look like a photo?” Well, no. “Is it a good drawing?” Yes, they concede, it’s a good drawing. Then I show them Picasso’s famous gesture drawing of Don Quixote and Sancho. It can’t have taken 90 seconds to draw, and yet it captures the pair in a way I could never do if I took a year. There’s no room here for a discussion of what constitutes ‘good art’, but heart and soul combine with technique to reveal that characteristic we share with our Maker, creativity.

Since God is nicer than we are, in addition to being perfectly honest, we can embrace His perfect assessment of our artistic endeavors. Our paintings, our photography, our films and songs and novels and dances and poetry and plays and remixes and guitar solos can all occupy a spot on His refrigerator, somehow held in place with some sort of heavenly magnet, provided we’ve used as best we can that divine spark He’s invested in us. The Mona Lisa and Starry Night and Güernica hang alongside “A Playground at Night” (or did I mean A Playground at Night ?) He’s your biggest fan too, without being patronizing.

So maybe you ought to get out there and create. God, who exists eternally, outside of the time and space he created, is still somehow waiting to see what you’ll do next.