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The Truth in Art

Last week, I talked about how hope remains with us; the week before that, about how the church views art. This week, I want to focus on something similar, but slightly different: how the church views truth in response to art.

Art is, for many people, something that hangs in galleries and museums. Wealthy people buy it ... or the people who want to be wealthy. Art isn't always about beauty; sometimes, and most often, it is about something just as ethereal, just as uncertain, and just as fluid: truth. On my wall, I have a quote by Willa Cather:
"Artistic growth is, more than it is anything else, a refining of the sense of truthfulness. The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artists, the great artist, knows how difficult it is."

One of my greatest pet peeves is when people ask for my opinion in something then are offended when I tell them exactly what I think about the topic. Sometimes, I admit, individuals happen upon a sore spot, but often I do tell people what I think. I am being truthful.

Coming in at a close second are two that often intertwine with one another: sales and information. I can usually spot a sales pitch when it's given. It annoys me that the person thinks I don't recognize it.
Connected to that, is when someone gives me information (read opinion) about something, and either (a) doesn't have all the facts or (b) doesn't recognize other problems within the context of the facts.
Usually in those cases, I refrain from speaking, especially if I don't quite know what unsettles me. It takes me time to research other viewpoints to develop a better view of the situation.

For me, truth can be a fluid entity, much like beauty. Now, are there elements of truth that remain? Yes; but those absolutes tend to be fewer than most people realize. In my process of life, I've come to the conclusion that the Nicene Creed and the Apostle's Creed are the two best entities for unification within the church. If we can agree to those two creeds, then everything else can be superfluous and debated.

Debate, for me at any rate, rarely involves winning. It is about seeking. It is the process I take to weed out the bad parts to find the good parts. It removes the dross from the gold, providing me with the best material to create something. I'm not looking for purity, I'm just looking to make the best decision based upon the information I have. And, if I find information later that doesn't work with my choice, I can adjust the decision to serve the newest information.

Truth is a standard to which I can weigh other elements, but not all facts are truth, and not all fiction are lies.

Facts Aren't Always Truth

I've had people tell me they don't read fiction because it isn't real. It isn't truth. As Christians we are to focus on that which is truthful therefore if it isn't truth, it's false and lies and therefore ungodly.

Unfortunately, what is truth and what is false are not necessarily so easily divided. I'm currently working on a series set in 1920s Buffalo, NY. It's a fascinating time with new scientific discoveries happening on a daily basis. In 1920, atomic science did not exist. Ernest Rutherford had only predicted the possibility of a neutron in that year. It wasn't until 1932 that his prediction was proven.

Science gives us facts so far as we understand the world around us. Facts can, have and will change. What science might tell us to be true this week may not be true next week, next year or even next decade. Science fascinates me because of the new discoveries.

Fiction is much like science: it is replete with new discoveries, and changes based upon the knowledge we have. When we study classic literature, we understand the concept of universal truths: elements within the story that remain the same throughout time. Elements such as greed, love, hope, anger, lust and countless other human emotions. These stories be it Pride and Prejudice, Much Ado About Nothing, or The Iliad fascinate readers throughout time because we can connect to the storylines.

Within these fictional worlds, truth exists. They aren't lies told by writers to trick you, but are suppositions written and created to explore other avenues. They are the accumulation of facts as we have them, set into a storyline to understand them. Short stories like parables are given to make a point. Longer stories are written not always to make a point, but to discover something. A longer story might even have the reader discover something along the way.

Not every story has a message like a parable does. Sometimes, it is simply a story, and we discover truths along with the characters.

Fictional Truths

I read to learn whether through a fictional story or through a non-fictional history. Reading non-fiction helps me understand my world in a factual basis while providing the real-world struggles my characters face. Fiction helps me understand what another character might feel or express because fiction can go into the hearts and minds of characters easier than non-fiction can.

Fiction is, for many people, something to pass the time. It rarely requires them to think or to analyze what they believe. Sometimes lies can spread this way whether through stereotypes or slanted storytelling. Conservative Christianity blames media for spreading lies and changing truth, but Conservative Christianity can be just as guilty of the same process. One of the most pervasive lies in Christianity is a two-fold concept:
  1. If you follow Christ, your life will be better, and
  2. If you are following Christ, and life isn't better then you are sinning.
These untruths are often found in literature in a variety of settings. It's in the stories of redemption where the bad boy comes to Christ. It is in the stories of love where the good girl waits forever (until she's twenty) then finds true love just before she sacrifices herself to the mission field. In the stories of healing where the husband and wife realize they have been doing things wrong the whole time and want to have a Biblical marriage.

Fiction, however, is often the best way for us to explore truth. For example, two of my series exist in realities where mermaids, elves, aliens and dragons exist alongside humans. For Azure's world, mermaids are humans who happen to have tails. She provides a mean to explore a world where the concept of human is fluid - are mermaids human? Can they be saved? Those two questions Eliam wrestles with, but you don't see because Azure tells the story. Should we find a gene that, in essence, turns on the tail, how would that affect what we understand as reality?

In another series I'm working on, my main character is an elf. For her, salvation doesn't exist, per say as modern Protestants would understand it. She understands the concept because she has non-magical human friends, but she sees the world in a bigger reality where the creator of the world battles with a rebellion in his ranks. To her it is a matter of allegiance, not salvation that binds her to the creator.

In both of those cases, the storylines never follow the big pictures of good versus evil, though Azure's is significantly bigger in scope than the second series. For both of them, as well as my non-fantasy/science-fiction series such as with Shamrocks of Stone, the day-to-day battles are more important. The world is broken, and in rebellion. How we respond the brokenness and pain says more about how we see the world than what we say. Fiction allows me to explore truth without the limitations of reality. Through fiction, I can see new worlds and civilizations. I can see how they might express universal truths. It is through fiction that I can shove aside the extraneous information to find what matters.

Truth through Art

While fiction allows both the writer and reader to explore truth, we all realize that life is rarely clean and easy. Often it is messy and confusing with no rhyme nor reason. Mark Twain once said:
"Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't."

The author, Tom Clancy adds,
"The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense."

In fiction, the ending has to be logical and fit within the realm we understand. It is part of the reason why we sometimes have bad endings when everything wraps up properly (here). In these moments when the world doesn't make sense, Art steps into life. The art might come through a great novel or a painting. It might be a song playing on the radio, or it might be poetry read on a cold spring morning.

See, in great art, truth remains. That truth might express itself in anger because anger is what I feel when I learn of injustices. Frustration is what I feel when I listen to people accept second best as good enough. I feel sorrow at loss be it the death of a loved one or rejection for a story. Art steps in, and either expresses what I feel (someone else's creation), or allows me to explore the emotion (my creation) or somewhere in between such as when I play a musical instrument.

For me, hope is not some happy feeling, it connects with truth - the plumb line in my life. Reality stinks: the bad guys win, the good lose. Things are stolen, people die, and hope can fade away, but when truth is allowed to shine through the muck and mire of reality, then hope can build again. Often, it isn't through the real world I find truth; it is through art that I find truth. If we are to be the lights of the world then the church needs to accept art in all its many forms as a viable, and oftentimes the best, way to express truth. Until then, we will always struggle to reach a world that is broken and lost.


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