Walking on water by Madeline L’Engle is a collection of thoughts on faith and art. L’Engle is an author of more than 50 books including the Newberry Winner, Wrinkle in Time. She was born in Manhattan on Nov. 29 1918; she died Sept. 6th 2007. By the age of 5 she had written her first book, and began to withdraw into her writing. She graduated from Smith College with a degree in English. Her works included poetry, plays, autobiography and books on prayer, and these were all extremely personal and showed her own search for truth.
Christian and Artist
In Walking on Water, She pieces together life stories, struggles, and her faith in God to define what it means to be a Christian and an artist. However, the phrase “Christian Artist” instead of qualifying a genre only convolutes what could be considered Christian. “Art is art, if it’s bad art; it’s bad religion, no matter how pious the subject (14).”
L’Engle’s premise is that it is the artist’s job to create cosmos out of chaos. She repeats this idea of cosmos and chaos through the book. According to L’Engle, the world in the everyday living is this chaos, and the artist is meant to look at the world and see the cosmos, designed and set in order. The artist is then meant to produce that cosmos. Readers are then taken through several necessities that an artist must do in creating cosmos: the artist must be obedient to the work, he must remember the things he has forgotten, and he must listen to the work.
How we Create Cosmos
The artist must be obedient in the command of the work upon their life, everyone has the choice to obey or refuse (18). According to L’Engle, Art is a vast lake. Whether he is a stream or a strong river, the artist must obey and serve the lake (23).
Through art, whether a participant or a creator, we are “reminded of the glorious things we have forgotten.” She bases this principle on the instruction of Plato. He believed the role of a teacher is to draw out truth from within (19). Our problem is that we have forgotten how to do miraculous things. We all have the ability to walk on water.
Also, she discuses that the artist needs to listen to his work. The artist must let the work take over (24). Then he is no longer in control but the work. This is when truly great art is produced.
L’Engle raises important points for the artist to consider. She mentions that the distortions of art have not only come from the secular world, but from the church as well. Sometimes we limit the ways truth can be expressed. Fiction, for instance, is a great vehicle for truth. Yet, many times it is seen as a waste of time. We forget how well fiction can illustrate truth. “Was Melville, writing about the sea and the great conflict between a man and a whale, not delving for a deeper truth than we can find in any number of ‘how-to’ books?”(73) She discuses in the same chapter the importance of not compromising conviction in your art for money. Integrity and truth must be valued above making profit (74).
Though her premise “cosmos out of chaos” is good as well as her conclusion, “bad art = bad religion”, her support fails to be compelling. She parallels the artist’s obedience to the work to the obedience of Mary in Luke 2. “Obedience to the work, whether it is a great symphony or a children’s story, comes to the artist and commands him, “Here I am. Enflesh me.” L’Engle says (18). Whatever she means by “enflesh” is not what the text is saying. Luke 2 is not about art. Obedience to the work of art that you are doing has no analogy to Mary’s response to Gabriel. However, the fact that a creative idea grows in the artist’s mind and that it is shaped and erected to mean something to others is good. And when the idea is accomplished under the lordship of Christ and for the glory of Christ that is very good. But this does not seem to be her point.
L’Engle’s ideas in this book use Scripture for support, but Scripture is not the source of these ideas. Her thoughts are not developed from Scripture nor does she discipline her thoughts to be subservient under Scripture; rather, the message of scripture is made subservient to her thoughts.
When she discusses the remembering of things forgotten, her meaning is ambiguous. She uses language that reflects a new age lens of reality. She invokes the title, “Walking on Water”, to explain this principle. The ability to walk on water and other miraculous things are innate within us, and merely needs to be drawn out.
If she means that we should remember God because we have forgotten him then this is a Biblical concept. Clearly in Scripture forgetting God is an ongoing problem with fallen man. For example Ezekiel 23:35 says, “Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Because you have forgotten Me and cast Me behind your back,” and Psalm 50:22 says, “Now consider this, you who forget God, lest I tear you in pieces, and there be none to deliver.” But if that were her meaning then she should have said so. In this case, ambiguity of language invites the reader to interpret her statements by their own experience. How she writes invites subjective inferences and conclusions on the part of the reader since she has not supplied the meaning herself.
Listening to the work is accomplished as you are in the midst of working. According to L’Engle, if you listen as you work then art will only be better than the artist if the work takes over (24). Losing control and emptying the mind resembles more of the mental abstractions of yoga philosophy than the Bible. She says, “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.” (149) Once again, perhaps she is referencing the illumination and leading of the Spirit in the use of our natural and supernatural gifts from God. The Christian artist, as every Christian, is to be controlled by the Spirit. But L’Engle fails to clarify or support this thesis if it is what she intends.
While faith is discussed in this book it is discussed without a definite object. If you have faith in something then your art will be great. Knowing that she is approaching the topic from the position of a Universalist helps us understand her very fluid definition of faith. For the Christian, faith is in Christ, and if you are an unbeliever, faith is in your work or in your inspiration (148). This explanation fails to communicate the Christian idea of faith. The biblical meaning of faith is trust and dependence on the character of God, in what Christ has accomplished, and in His Word. Faith in the work, faith in the vision seems to be mere idolatry. Faith to the believer who creates is to see the beauty of God and desire to reflect this beauty in all he does. Men having the capacity for great creativity owns to the fact that they were made in the image of God, not their faith in the work.
The only thing that has true and lasting beauty and value is that which reflects the character of God. Men have the ability to do this solely because they bear the image of the great Creator. Even those stories or images that depict pride, vanity, and other sins, when they are depicted from God’s perspective they also have worth and value. We see this in paintings, music, writing, etc. For example, Frank Cowper’s painting titled Vanity. In the painting there is a lovely young women holding a mirror that is lying down in her lap. But even though it is lying down, her eyes cannot help but peer toward it to look at her reflection. This painting is beautifully done, depicts vanity truthfully, and thus it glorifies God.
For the Kingdom
L’Engle, if she is a Christian, does not operate on a biblical worldview in this book. Her interpretation of faith and obedience and her ideas of loosing control to the work are not seen in Scripture. But her work is not without some redemptive value, though it requires much discernment. One of the ending chapters, Journey Homeward, She rightly describes the purpose of art- to further the kingdom of God and bring Him glory (163). Bringing God glory and furthering His kingdom is paramount for the Christian’s purpose of creating.
L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. New York: North Point Press, 1980.