Coming from a strong collection of fiercely contemplative, and overwhelmingly creative Christian individuals, Madeleine L’Engle has composed some of the richest pieces of fiction to ever grace the evangelical arsenal, though not exclusively. Known mostly for her popular work “A Wrinkle in Time” L’Engle has survived the unfortunate categorizations of a “Christian Artist” by constructing truth-filled (but not always overt) compelling stories that reflect the nature of what is and what can be. Her works are so compelling that they bridge seemingly intended borders of Christian and Non-Christian, adult and child, and sinner and saint. It is from this amazing talent and thoughtfulness that L’Engle’s fellow author and dear friend Luci Shaw encouraged her to write a book on the subject of Christian art. L’Engle, somewhat reluctant, launches her swirling attempt at articulating this subject in “Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art”.
Pinning down L’Engle’s specific thesis on the subject can be a frustrating and arduous task, as one gets the sense that she herself is not fully aware of all of the complexity of the subject. She herself occasionally admits this fact. One might expect a response on this subject to be riddled with biblical analysis or concise statements of clarity but L’Engle does nothing of the sort. She invokes far more mystery in her understanding. The book reads less like a term paper and more like a private journal. Any attempt at a clear criterion is juxtaposed to semi-contradictions, but there are a few points, which she attempts to make clear throughout.
Firstly, as the title suggests, L’Engle draws strong connections to the practice of faith and the act of creating. To her, creating is a faithful process in which the artist must step aside and let inspiration flow for an honest work to be created. She illustrates this point by referencing a character in a novel she wrote that she didn’t intend to write about before she began. The character, Joshua from her book “The Arm of the Starfish,” came to her suddenly after a majority of the plotline had been preconceived. Having faith to her creative impulse she followed through with the character acknowledging that she had no choice to include this character or not. She writes, “I cannot now imagine the book without Joshua, and I know that it is a much better book because of him. But where he came from I cannot say. He was a sheer gift of grace” (221).
Prayer seems to be the common thread that binds the two practices. She writes, “…the disciplines of the creative process and Christian contemplation are almost identical” (223). It is through her many years of learning these Christian practices that L’Engle is able to abandon herself to her creation.
Though she finds art to be something that reflects the practice of faith, L’Engle doesn’t limit the creative process to believing individuals. This is one of the main reasons she struggles so much to find a meaning for Christian art. She even uses a literary device to make the point by separating her definitions of herself into two sentences; the first being a Christian and the second an artist. To her, true art, which she calls “incarnational,” is the artist giving birth to something that must live. This is something she feels is not a uniquely Christian thing.
She goes through example after example of artists, Christian and Non-Christian (though she doesn’t like the term), who have taken part in this creative endeavor. Although in response to her question on whether a difference exists in the creative process of the Christian or Non-Christian she confusingly answers, “Yes.No.” (172). Her response is humorous but it illustrates her difficulty at coming to precise conclusions on the subject.
One point L’Engle makes which is somewhat difficult to pin down, is that Christian art (or “true art”) is subject to a question: “Do we want the children to see it?” Though L’Engle is so to make the point clear, this does not necessarily mean that something does not handle difficult subject matter. She actually encourages the artist to employ all facets of life, whether they be violence, sex, etc… Her criterion is therefore more an observance not of a child’s capacity to handle a given subject, as she believes they are capable of far more than adults give them credit for, but a of love that seeks not to be destructive to those who take part. One may discover upon more reflection of her work that she does not intend this to be used as an excuse to censor art or remove the rough edges, but as a way to communicate those parts in ways that build up and not break down.
Around these loose criteria, she constructs a framework in which she encourages the artist to pursue creating. She fills the remaining space with anecdotes, quotes, stories, and perceptive tangents that encourage the reader to ponder things that just might become applicable in that quiet moment of creating. Her voice is of that of a well-respected artist, and a struggling theologian, pointing to something outside of herself, which she can only be faithful to follow. It is with these insights that the reader is challenged to not only be a better artist, but a better Christian.
“For an artist is not a consumer, as our commercials urge us to be. An artist is a nourisher and a creator who knows that during the act of creation there is collaboration. We do not create alone.” (43)
L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. Wheaton, IL: H. Shaw, 2001. Print.