FLASHES OF THE TRUTH: A THEOLOGY OF ART IN MADELEINE L'ENGLE'S "WALKING ON WATER"
By Danielle Carey
Earthbound as we are, even we can walk on water. – Madeleine L’Engle
I was blessed to discover Madeleine L’Engle’s classic reflection on faith and art, Walking on Water, at a time when I felt an oppressive need to be sure that the writing I was doing was holy writing.
I was young, and drunk with inspiration, and would sleep with an open notebook by my bed so I wouldn’t lose a single drop from the stream of ideas pulsing through my imagination. But I was burdened by the terrifying question of whether this delirious deluge of stories was a fit use of my time and mind and heart. It weighed heavy on me, that a scene might leap fully-formed into my mind, demanding to be written, and yet have seemingly nothing to do with God or the gospel or some intrinsic deeper message.
How could I justify pouring myself into art that I wasn’t even sure was Christian? It was a very real, very painful source of turmoil.
So I glommed desperately to authors who gracefully straddled what I thought of as two disparate spheres: the secular and the spiritual. These were authors who were unashamedly God-focussed in their thinking, and yet their writings were read by many, including those who did not believe.
I wanted to know how they did it. What does Christian writing look and sound like? Does it require frequent, explicit references to Jesus? Do I need to shoehorn in a gospel moment to make a story truly worthy? I was burning with story, but I wanted to burn with faithfulness, too. How should the two intersect?
Bless C.S. Lewis, then, for showing me one way to be a Christian and an artist. Bless Flannery O’Connor, bless G.K. Chesterton, and bless Madeleine L’Engle also for defining what a Christian artist actually is: a Christian, who makes good art. Bless them for showing me that the presence of the Holy Spirit means there is no longer a secular sphere, regardless of whether the work being brought to life is a tapestry for a church altar or a space opera on film. Rather, for the Christian, to make art is to make Christian art.
This is what L’Engle explores from the outset in Walking on Water – and though I say L’Engle, I am sorely tempted to simply call her Madeleine. At this point in my walk as a writer, and a Christian, Madeleine L’Engle is someone about whom I cannot be purely objective. She is an old and dear friend, a mentor, albeit one who never knew my name nor even that I exist. Yet she launches into Walking on Water as if we were exactly that: old friends. There is no preamble and no pretension. Rather, with the kind of light humility which characterises her entire book, L’Engle confesses her hesitancy to call herself a Christian writer:
“No, I most certainly do not want to write about being a Christian artist,” L’Engle said, when renowned poet Luci Shaw asked her to speak on this theme. “Why is it that I, who have spent my life struggling to be a better artist, and struggling also to be a better Christian, should feel rebellious when I am called a Christian artist?”.
As the book progresses (in a manner part memoir, part compilation of the thoughts and writings of others), L’Engle subtly reveals that her discomfort with the idea of the Christian artist comes not from any reluctance to link her name to her faith but, rather, because we have been sold a cheap and sterilised version of what it means to be a Christian artist.
Revisiting Walking on Water now, I find L’Engle’s bluntness and honesty immediately endearing. L’Engle asks more questions than she provides answers, and the questions she wrestles with are the ones we all wrestle with, the ones my younger self agonised over: What makes art? What is art? What is good art, bad art, Christian art? And how are we to know which kind we are making? As she grapples with these questions, L’Engle offers what is, in essence, a theology of art and – by extension (or perhaps at its root) – a theology of creation.
As C.S. Lewis once did, L’Engle affirms that, “If it’s bad art, it’s bad religion, no matter how pious the subject”. And the inverse is also true: God gifts His own image even to those who do not acknowledge Him, meaning that unbelievers are able to render “something divine” in a work of great artistic beauty.
The purpose of art, L’Engle asserts, “is to affirm meaning, despite all the ambiguities and tragedies and misunderstanding which surround us”. It is bringing cosmos out of chaos – or, perhaps, cosmos despite chaos. If art can do this, then it is art which can also honour God.
In many ways, Walking on Water is a celebration of the paradoxical, something L’Engle freely acknowledges, confessing at one point: “We cannot seem to escape paradox; I do not think I want to”. This comfort with paradox appears in several ways. It pops up in the connection between fiction and truth, the power of made-up worlds to illuminate for us our own not-made-up reality. L’Engle condemns the religious snobbery that dismisses as a waste of time those things – like fiction – which do not deal with factual truth, and argues for fiction as one of the greatest vehicles for truth available to us. After all, Jesus told stories. That, in itself, should be all the testimony we need. “If it holds no truth,” L’Engle writes, “then it cannot truly be story. And so I knew that it was in story that I found flashes of that truth which makes us free”.
Paradox appears, too, in the fuzzy boundary line between religious and secular art. On the one hand, L’Engle makes no distinction between the two, arguing that content is not enough to make a work holy or unholy. On the other hand, she suggests that art’s holiness may be a matter of reception as much as intent. Could it be that art is made spiritual by its audience as much as by its creator? It would seem so: “When we look at a painting, or hear a symphony, or read a book, and feel more Named, then, for us, that work is a work of Christian art”.
The gentle implication in all these musings is that we, too, should develop a sort of comfort with the paradoxes that dog our artistic pursuits and our faith.
I can’t help but think that Christians, among all people, must learn to love paradox. Many of the great realities of Christian belief are beautifully illogical: Jesus, a king who is also a servant; God, at once a righteous judge and a great redeemer.
L’Engle pulls no punches in her doctrine. I came into my reread thinking her theology was ambiguous, but now I must assume that as a younger reader I’d been looking for some kind of denominational outline onto which to pin L’Engle’s beliefs. In this case, certainly, she is happily ambiguous, drawing on the wisdom and experience of believers from diverse Christian traditions. But her theology itself is entirely clear. It’s robust and earthy, saturated in a deep understanding of God’s love and grace, the redemptive power of the cross, and the role of the Holy Spirit. It’s a richly spiritual conversation, but is never neglectful of the practical.
In L’Engle’s work and words, holiness and humanity walk side by side. The business of following Jesus is shown as meaty, get-your-hands-dirty work, and there’s an implicit understanding that life is pocked with suffering as well as great delight.
In all of it, however, this daring pursuit called art gives us a glimpse of the true and helps lift us into wonder. It is an extension and expression of the human experience in all of its grief and glory. “In art,” L’Engle promises, “we are once again able to do all the things we have forgotten; we are able to walk on water; we speak to the angels who call us; we move, unfettered, among the stars”. It is a bolstering message of hope and gutsy industry, and it hit me all over again as I revisited Walking on Water. If reading it through the first time was like coming to a new house and feeling as if I had always lived there, re-reading it has been like returning home after a long journey and discovering beautiful details I’d never noticed were there in the first place.
Danielle Carey lives on Quandamooka country in south-east Queensland in a little house whose walls are held up by overfilled bookshelves. She teaches creative writing and English lit, and (over)shares her reading life on instagram at @halfdesertedstreets.