The Artful Paradox

Barbara Nicolosi's blog, Church of the Masses is one of my weekly watering holes along the internet highway. While her site focuses upon films and film-making, it also contains lotsa wonderful insights for Christians in the arts. These recent quotes had me particularly psyched...

The biggest shortfall I find in beginning writers - Christians and pagans - is the failure to understand and harness the real power in the screen art form. Anyone who wants to write great movies has to plumb the depths of the multilevel nature of cinema and then begin to exploit the levels to create paradox.

The real power to help and heal the audience in a work of art is in paradox. We really want to haunt the audience in the way, for example, that Flannery O’Conner’s stories are haunting. She’s the one who created that phrase, saying that in order to make a story a work, she had to find a “haunting moment.” This refers to a moment in a story that is at once completely true and completely shocking. I have really brooded over this a lot, and it is clear to me that a work of art stays with an audience, and leads them into rumination, in so far as it incorporates paradox.

So, what happens in a movie is that the audience walks into the theater distracted, munching their popcorn, burping and scratching. Then, they encounter the movie, and suddenly they find themselves at the end with a new and irritating/pressing question: “Rats! I have a question now that keeps coming back to me!”

Too many Christians think we are supposed to use the arts to give people the answers. We’re not. We’re supposed to use the arts to lead them into a question. And that is just one stage in their personal journey of divine revelation. Once they have a new question, they will be on a search - consciously or subconsciously. They are going to read, they are going to meet people, God is going to send other things in their life. They are not going to get dunked in the baptismal font and raised to the altar from a movie. That’s too much. But the arts can definitely send people delving.

If you understand that, then you understand presenting an artful paradox is enough. We used to say in the convent, “Humble tasks are still necessary ones.” I think the arts task is very humble in getting people to a place of discomfort, what Plato called the stinging fly around the thoroughbred, getting it so angry that it runs. That is enough.

Her statements spotlight what I believe is a fundamental flaw with "Christian writing" -- using our craft to "provide answers" rather than "provoke questions," or what Ms. Nicolosi calls "presenting an artful paradox." Why is it that so many believing authors feel their book is incomplete without a conversion scene or, at least, an articulation of the Gospel message?

If I'm not mistaken, this tendency to want to provide answers in every story derives from a distorted view of the redemptive process. The Apostle Paul wrote:

So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow (1 Corinthians 3:7).

Christians are powerless to "make things grow." That is God's job. Our job is to "plant" and "water." There are times when we must outline the specifics of the Gospel. But when we do that using art, it becomes propaganda. Or proselytism. The role of the artist is not to indoctrinate, but to stimulate, express or evoke -- to present images and ideas that disturb, startle, madden and inspire, to stir what Flannery O'Conner called the "haunting moment."

We cannot save people through films and books. Of course, God can use these things, but they're always part of a much bigger process. It is enough that the author / artist / film-maker plants and waters seeds, creates a haunting moment and an artful paradox. But only God can make them grow.


Jeanne Damoff said...

Great post, Mike.

Friday we watched The Miracle Worker (the old b&w version with Patty Duke as Helen Keller and Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan). Several scenes and quotes from the movie are "haunting" me. I even used that word in a blog post about one quote.

My favorite books and movies are the ones that foster lively dialogue and leave me grappling for days.

Of course, I also love the ones that the mere thought of makes me laugh out loud. They may not plant many seeds, but maybe they provide the, um, fertilizer?

Gina Holmes said...

Hah. Great timing on this post. I just handed my proposal over to my agent for my novel. And I was just thinking, what if he asks me for the moral. Basically I raised some questions but they weren't as clearly answered as I originally planned and this post made me feel good about that.

I think I definitely like the raising of questions much, much better than trying to give all the answers. God will fill in the blanks. Thanks Mike!

Yours Truly said...

Oh. I forgot, you can't hear me nodding. I love it when other people articulate my thoughts for me.

As L'Engle said, "the best ... books ask questions, and make the readers ask questions. And every new question is going to disturb someone's universe."

Yours Truly said...

Yeah, I also forgot to sign my name.


Vicki said...

Great post, Mike. Good stuff to mull over. What hit me this morning was remembering that we as writers can "plant and water" but God gives the increase. We can't possbily grow anything, like you said.

While I haven't completed a book length project as yet, I'll bear in mind the things you've so eloquently addressed here--such as not providing 'answers' in our stories, per se, but provoking thought or question in the reader. I do think certain books will do exactly the opposite, but I'm not talking fiction here.

What did you think about the movie, The End of the Spear? There seemed to be no blantant proselytizing, yet the movie was rich in the theme of grace, redemption, and forgiveness.

Thanks again for a great post! Looking forward to more.

Mary Yerkes said...

Loved this, Mike! In my opinion, we as Christian writers would do well to take this advice to heart:

"Too many Christians think we are supposed to use the arts to give people the answers. We’re not. We’re supposed to use the arts to lead them into a question. And that is just one stage in their personal journey of divine revelation."

I believe trying to provide answers for our readers is one of the reasons why Christian writing rarely rises above the level of mediocrity.

Sandy Cathcart said...

Love this post.

I attended one of Act One's Adaptation Seminars and Barbara showed us some of those haunting moments from well known screenplays. One is that scene of Scarlett walking through the miles and miles of wounded soldiers in Gone with the Wind. It's a good thing to strive for.

My agent recently caught me by asking if I didn't read my own work? "You need to take a lesson from your lead character," my agent said. "Luke moved in increments. He didn't try to get the whole thing at once."