By Liz Sparks
Christian art. Hmm…for many, this phrase leaves a bad taste in the mouth. We’re not sure what to do with it, whether it accurately portrays our work and the work of others, whether it is something to which we aspire or strongly avoid. Madeleine L’Engle struggled too with identifying “Christian art” and the Christian artist, and her book, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, displays her thoughts on what these titles mean. L’Engle wrote this book to show Christians the power of creating and to open their minds as to how each person should play a role in creation. She explains this through a discussion of servant creation, acceptance of and love towards others, and an allowance of God to control our selves and our creation.
L’Engle explains from the beginning of her thoughts that “art is cosmos, cosmos found within chaos.” She says that true art is something created which brings a meaning to something in the brokenness, the shaken madness, of the world in which we exist. And according to L’Engle, we were made to create, to bring order in some way back into the chaos of our world. She thus explains that the way to do that is in remembering that this act of creating is not for self. She quotes Jean Rhys as he says, “All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake…and there are mere trickles…All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.” Any sort of creation is an act of service, whether that is to serve the community in which one lives, the church body in which he participates, or even the country to which he belongs. It is the “lake” that a creator feeds, and this is what any artist needs to focus on, L’Engle says.
Creating “cosmos in chaos” can also be accomplished, L’Engle explains, as one learns to accept others. She speaks of people who seek God in other ways than herself, who are of different denominations and have other faith practices or traditions. L’Engle talks about the necessity of recognizing value in works of artists who are Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, atheist, and all other faiths, because they too have the ability to produce beauty in creation. Her warning is that one should not judge or label another’s work, but really perceive it. She warns that “to identify is to control, to limit. To love is to call by name, and so open the wide gates of creativity. But we forget names, and turn to labels.” No one really listens to other people, but judges them as they place labels, forgetting names. Furthermore, L’Engle encourages the artist, the creator, to create in a way that does not promote labels. She says of her own writing,
If my stories are incomprehensible to Jews or Muslims or Taoists, then I have failed as a Christian writer. We do not draw people to Christ 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.
L’Engle argues here that a true creator of cosmos creates for the needs of others, and thus accepts others as they are. This type of artist does not wish to discredit others’ beliefs but seeks to spread light through the beauty of his own creation.
Finally, L’Engle explains that an important part of creating cosmos in chaos is to allow God to work through the creator and the creation. She discusses how big God is and how little human beings understand of Him. To create, she says, humans need to have faith in His greatness, and faith in the concept that they will never completely understand Him. The problem, she explains, is that “instead of rejoicing in this glorious ‘impossible’ which gives meaning and dignity to our lives, we try to domesticate God, to make his mighty actions comprehensible to our finite minds.” We do not have enough faith, she says. We should believe in angels, think of cherubim, believe we are truly able to walk on water. If Christians “take seriously” Christ’s time on earth and His state of being as a true man, “then anything he did in his lifetime is available to us, too.” Furthermore, the artist has to believe in the work he is creating. He has to believe not only that God is working through him, L’Engle says, but that the work is true, and if he does not believe in his work, no audience will believe in it either.
L’Engle’s perspective seems to be different than many in the field of “Christian art.” She is focused on the artist serving those for whom he creates. Many artists – even those who title themselves as “Christian” – concentrate so much on creating to fulfill a selfish motive, whether that be fame, wealth, or simply to fulfill one’s own need to create. She focuses the reader on the need to think about others. Her thoughts are quite convincing; the reader does feel the necessity to create, and to do so selflessly, by the end of the book.
I do feel like some of L’Engle’s theological views are somewhat different from my own. While I do not know exactly where she stands on specific issues in theology, I believe that’s okay. I identify with her as she explains that we “approach God in rather different ways, but it is the same God we are seeking, just as Jesse [a Seventh Day Adventist] and I, in our totally different disciplines, worship the same Lord.” “Tolerance” has become a scary word in evangelical circles, and I feel that this is what L’Engle is addressing here. While we certainly need to carefully project the truth through our work, this does not mean we cannot listen to someone else’s point of view. I agree wholeheartedly with her argument. This is how we gain credibility through the production of our media. We listen to the needs of our audience and produce for them: “servant speaking” as Quentin Schultze calls it (or servant writing, servant filming, servant painting). And if we cannot listen to other people because we have written them off as “different” from us – holding a “wrong” theological view – or even simply as a “non-believer,” how can we ever be servants to them through our media?
L’Engle gives a description of how the creative process should work, and I feel that it fits so well with being a “servant” in creation: “Meditation, silence, faith in that which we cannot control or manipulate. And letting go of that dictator self which constantly tries to take over the controls. And listening.” We must let go of self to listen. That is how we create as Christians. We do not create for ourselves, but for “the lake,” for the audience. And the important thing to remember, as L’Engle reminds, is “that our gift, no matter what the size, is indeed something given us, for which we can take no credit, but which we may humbly serve, and, in serving, learn more wholeness, be offered wondrous newness.” Christ has made us new, and we are beings made to create; therefore, let us take on this chaos and marvel in the cosmos to which we are called.
 L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. New York: North Point Press, 1980. 17.
 Ibid. qtd. Jean Rhys. 23.
 Ibid. 112-113.
 Ibid. 122.
 Ibid. 82.
 Ibid. 86
 Ibid. 148.
 Ibid. 45.
 Schultze, Quentin. An Essential Guide to Public Speaking. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic: 2006.
 L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. New York: North Point Press, 1980. 182.
 Ibid. 196.