Tuesday, January 3, 2017

A Review of L'Engle's "Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art"

I think 2016 went out with a fizzle for me. I've been down about current national and world events and moods. And, ever the introvert, discontentment with external events is eventually subsumed by disillusionment about my own lack of apparent contributions to the betterment of society over the last 38 — better make that 39 — years. I've been down on my writing, parenting...wife-ing... friend-ing...Christian-ing. And, as it turns out, being down on myself does not translate into becoming a better version of myself. 

I begin 2017 thinking about many of the thoughts contained in Madeleine L'Engle's classic book on being a Christian creative.There's this little flicker of hope when I read Walking on Water, first published when I was 2 years old, and now reprinted in portable paperback form with a lovely sunny rainy cover and a nifty reader's guide at the end. I've been reading and re-reading this book for a few months now, hesitating to write my review because then I'll have officially "finished" the book, so packed with treasures, tips, observations, philosophy and theology.  In L'Engle's theology, creative work is a spiritual discipline— a prayer— and listening to the work is the same as listening to God. 

To work on a book is for me very much the same things as to pray. Both involve discipline. If the artist works only when he feels like it, he's not apt to build up much of a body of work. Inspiration far more often comes during the work than before it, because the largest part of the job of the artist is to listen to the work and to go where it tells him to go. Ultimately, when you are writing, you stop thinking and write what you hear. To pray is to listen also, to move through my own chatter to God, to that place where I can be silent and listen to what God may have to say. But if I pray only when I feel like it, God may choose not to speak. (140)
While not the only idea presented in Walking on Water, I found the above sentiments to be a recurring and expanding theme. The book is a perfect example of her argument that "over the years, I have come to recognize that the work often knows more than I do" (14). I found that the book's thoughts looked differently to me each time I read them, depending on how the light of the Spirit hit their facets. And perhaps the same is true for countless other readers, who spy a glimpse of God that even L'Engle herself didn't see as she wrote, obedient to her calling. At the risk of sounding heretical, it's as if something this woman of God wrote has qualities similar to the inspired Word. 

On that note, I'm particularly dazzled by her personification of Work, which in my mind echos the New Testament's personification of the Word become flesh:
When the work takes over, then the artist is enabled to get out of the way, not to interfere. When the work takes over, then the artist listens. (14)
And here it is again:
It is a joy to be allowed to be the servant of the work.  (163)
These statements strike me as bold and edgy in a slippery slope kind of way, even though they ring true. Many times throughout my life I've felt that intense spark of joy when caught up in a creative project. In those solitary moments, I didn't feel alone. Engrossed in the creative process, it seemed the work was alive, like another being with which I could share the thrill. The sheer joy of making and creating was more rewarding that even the finished products, which, inevitably failed to match my vision for them. 

The more pressing problem, though, and what makes L'Engle's view of work feel revolutionary to me, is that that my formative years as a Christian taught me to fear and (even hate as one hates their soul life) my attraction to creative endeavors. Creativity itself was to be handled carefully, for if my soul loved it too much, it became an idol of individuality, selfishness and division. I think this utter nonsense now, but the tentacles of a toxic thought still occasionally choke my conscience into acquiescence. 

L'Engle chips away at this bondage for me, and beckons me not only to embrace my identity as OK, but as God-given and godly.
God is constantly creating, in us, through us, with us, and to co-create with God is our human calling. It is the calling for all of us, his creatures, but it is perhaps more conscious with the artist. (71) (emphasis mine)
In addition to reframing the pursuit of creative passions as a spiritual exercise, and pointing out the aspect of our Creator God that presents Himself to us as work to be done, L'Engle touches on a question I've had in the back of my mind for years, creeping steadily toward the forefront the older I get: What is truth? Is it all the right answers, dog-eared and highlighted and cross-referenced? Or, can truth dwell in the alchemy of page-turning fiction mixed with our human experience? I loved when L'Engle gave her answer to this question by way of a shout out to my favorite novel, "Is Jane Eyre not true?" (64). She also champions the truth tellers, "the great artists" (124) who
help us to know that we are often closer to God in our doubts than in our certainties, that it is all right to be like the small child who constantly asks: Why? Why? Why?
And not only do Christian artists give space to ask questions in child-like faith, but they also stand firm on "the message of love. [For] a Christian children's book must have an ultimately affirmative view of life" (112).

Finally, if you haven't picked up on it already, this is not a step-by-step "How to Be a Christian Author" manual, though it is crafted by the best-selling author of A Wrinkle in Time. Instead, it's full of stories, wonderment and awe-filled introspection, written in bounding bursts of inspiration, compiled in a slightly unorganized fashion. I prefer this style to the former, because it gives my mind spaces to meander as I read. In particular, I love the way L'Engle pauses her lofty thoughts for a mini etymology lesson here and there. I've learned that hale = health = whole = holy and humans = humus = humility. And immediately I wondered, is it not the most human thing in the world to aspire to otherworldly things? Does the "humus" (dirt, not chickpea dip) from which we've been formed also long and groan humbly for some part in the coming glorification? Is that why we do too?

If you're a Christian who enjoys spending time in your head and are looking for a gracious companion to accompany you on your own creative endeavors, I think you'll find much wisdom and encouragement in L'Engle's Walking on Water. You might even meet Jesus on a new way if you're willing to get your feet wet.

*I happily received this book in exchange for my honest review.*

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