Walking on Water is a book by Madeleine L’Engle. It is first and foremost a book for artists, by an artist. L’Engle passionately believes that all good art should be Christian art. What she means by this is not that all art should be created and produced by Christians for Christians. Rather, that all art should be seeking to find cosmos or the divine, in the chaos and dissonance of life (8, 49, 51, 163).
Throughout the book L’Engle expands on this claim and defends it. L’Engle writes from her experience as an artist and she does not hold back, it is clear that she is pouring her heart and her soul out to the reader. It doesn’t read like a how-to book. It reads like a conversation, a comfortable conversation between kindred spirits. Though this adds to appeal of the book, in some ways it also takes of from its credibility. At times, L’Engle was so swept up in her story and her experience that when properly examined I found her theology lacking. This would be the number complaint I had about the book. In brief, much of L’Engle’s theology seems to be thinking thoughts and offering them up to God (44, 45) . Proper theology is the discipline of thinking God’s thoughts after Him. This distinction is crucial; it will affect how we approach God and how we serve Him.
Another idea L’Engle wrestles with is the notion that as we grow up we forget how to create. She makes the point that all children are artists. They don’t need to be taught how to create, they instinctively just know. Children imagine impossible things, they tell fantastic stories and they draw without worrying if their art will be liked. As they grow, they are told that some stories are impossible, they are told that they daydream. They become aware of others and compare themselves to an ideal. They lose the pure unhampered instinct to create. Instead of creative impulse, children begin to have the desire to be liked, to be affirmed, to be appraised and to be found worthy. (Chapter 3)
L’Engle throughout the book urges us to put aside these desires. We as artists are exhorted to die to our selfishness and to serve the work. In letting go of our own ambitions, we rediscover a childlike innocence, allowing ourselves to be led by the Spirit and intuition. (Chapter 3)
L’Engle’s theology affects many of her practical suggestions to the artist. She is constantly telling the artists to create for themselves first, to not consider the whims and opinions of others. She also urges artists to give themselves over to the work. The first statement I heartily disagree with, as a believer my responsibility is first and foremost to serve the Lord, then to serve others. When I create it shouldn’t be out of a self-serving instinct. When I create it must come from a desire to cultivate my relationship and closeness with the Lord. It must come from a desire to take all that I’m learning or being taught and put it in a form that I understand and comprehend. This discipline is my response to what the Lord is doing in my life and if done properly it’s an act of worship and thanksgiving to Him. Perhaps, God will use that piece of work to minister not only to Him and to our relationship, but to minister to others as well. But if I seek to create something that is solely for me and for my benefit, then I shouldn’t expect God to be able to use it for someone else. It was created selfishly for me, it will not transcend my experience, it will not offer profound truth that exists outside of myself.
As to the second statement, giving yourself over to the work, I am not completely clear on what L’Engle means. If she is calling the artist to serve the work because it is the work the Lord has called them too then I would absolutely agree. 1 Corinthians 15:58 urges believers to be “abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (ESV). For this reason, if the artist is called to a task or the Lord has given them inspiration then they must absolutely give themselves over to it. They must as L’Engle encourages die to their selfish ambitions and allow the Spirit to work through them. However, due her overall tone and other statements she makes in the book I am inclined to believe that L’Engle is suggesting the artist give themselves over to the work simply because the work is worthy. This type of attitude suggests creating just to create, and surrendering oneself so that the work (not necessarily the Lord’s purposes for the work) might be served.
L’Engle uses the metaphor of a lake to describe how all artists contribute to the conversation. Some artists are rushing rivers that rush and pour their reserves into the lake. Other artists may be like a small, trickling stream, one that’s barely able to find it’s way to the lake, but that stream still matters and each drop of water makes a difference. Each piece of art, each piece of work, each artists heart is distinct and with each contribution our world is altered. It is the work of the Christian artist to alter it for the better.
In this idea of changing the world for the better, L’Engle makes a statement on the world in which we live. She writes that our world today lacks nothing; it’s just that all the pieces of our world have been dissembled; the work of the Christian artist is to begin putting the pieces back together (168). I have a hard time with this statement. While it’s a beautiful picture of God’s call and purpose for artists, I believe it’s only half true. The truth is that our world is wanting much, we need only to see the homeless on our streets, hear the gunshots of a gang dispute, or see the hopelessness in the face of a youth to know that our world indeed lacking and it is not as it should be. The truth is that our world is fallen. Our world has been broken by sin, and sin is the absence of all that is good. One day our world will be remade, Christ will reign in a new heaven and new earth where nothing is lacking and all is well. Today the responsibility of Christian artists is to remind the world that we live in the tension of the now, not yet promises of Scripture. Now sin has been defeated and death has lost it’s sting, but we do not yet reign with Christ in glory. It is the responsibility of Christian artists to take the pieces of our broken world and remind it that one-day all will be well.
This brings me back to my main complaint about the book and L’Engle’s theology. Though much of what L’Engle has to say is powerful and true, I believe it must be read with a critical mind. An artist may not be a professional theologian, but an artist offers their theology to the world through their work. It is therefore of the utmost importance that the artist have a proper view of God and a proper theology in order to communicate Biblical truth.
L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water. Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2001
ESV Study Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008