Friday, June 09, 2006

The Artist and the Jock

I call it the artist and the jock paradox. Artists, from all different fields, are stereotyped as disdainful of jocks – as though the athletic endeavor were some subhuman Neanderthal activity. Meanwhile, jocks are stereotyped as smirking at artists as out of touch nutcases. Of course this stereotype does not necessarily hold for those who are actually doing art and athletics -- it may be based more on the behavior of art lovers and athletic fans. In any case, we can see it in nascent form in the cliquish realm of high school and college: a mutual disdain.

In the church, we live with the reality of I Corinthians 12 – that God has given us all each to the other. This implies that God has given artists to the jocks and jocks to the artists. We each belong to the other. Indeed artists and jocks probably have the most to give to each other in terms of learning about discipleship in their wrestling with
* how to remain faithful in a subculture that glories in excess and indulgence
* how to have a Christlike humility while glory and accolades are being showered upon you for your accomplishments
* how to maintain the rigorous discipline each endeavor takes while still maintaining a spiritual discipline to nourish the soul
* how to push up to the very edge of competitiveness or artistic boundaries without going over the line.
* how to honor Christ in a way that doesn’t seem contrived or cheesy.

Indeed, the artist and the jock might find that there are great similarities in their field. Particularly around the concept of glory. There is a moment, a sensation when one is lost in the work – when the elements of the craft or trade seem to come together and for a few shining seconds, everything seems effortless. It might even feel transcendent or mystical, as though this moment might last for eternity – or at least wishing that it could. I know performing artists feel this moment – when all the rehearsal is forgotten and the movements are fresh in the moment – there’s a palpable connection with the other performers on stage. There’s an electricity that seems to emanate from the audience as you feel them with you and instinct kicks subtly directing every move, every gesture, every tone and inflection in your voice. Every pause becomes significant because of that moment. And that is a taste of glory. Athletes feel this too – when they sense their teammates and sense the position of the other team – when the shout of the crowd is drowned out, but the energy of there presence is there with you. The movements all click, you run on instinct and time crawls to a standstill. You would not choose to be any other place – it is though you are treading upon the center of the universe. That is a taste of glory. I anticipate that other artists feel this too in their own thrill of composition or applying paint to canvas or shaping materials or letting words flow forth. That hard to define moment, when everything is flowing – that moment often called the zone – that moment is a fleeting touch with glory. The rays of glory beam through in the creative process as something really good is happening. But for us humans it is only fleeting.

However, in that moment of glory lies the greatest temptation – for the temptation is to consider the glory a work of our hands, rather than a reflection of what has been given us. The temptation is to think of the glory as something we manufacture rather than a gracious gift as a reward for our hard work. Why is it, after all, that Homer and the ancients call out to the muses? For there is something that must be given – something intangible that when it shows up lends fire to the work of our hands. This intangible is God’s glory. God graciously lends his glory through what theologians call common grace (this is the idea that God’s truth, beauty, and goodness resound all through the universe – even to and through those who don’t recognize Him). Thus, an atheistic pagan creating a work of art will still not be able to completely shut out the possibility of God’s glory resounding through it.

On the field of athletics, the glory seems to come from the athlete himself – on stage from the performer – on canvas from the artist. In all these cases, the misidentification of the glory leads to idolatry and arrogance. The athlete becomes a “star” and indulges himself in many different things. The artist thinks himself “brilliant” and begins to break all kinds of taboos because he can. Thus, the seductive allure of glory – intensified because the athlete and the artist perform their works for audiences – threaten to undo both the artist and the jock. Is it any wonder why God might have said that the parts of the body cannot do without each other. We need the wisdom of others to promote the proper sense of humility and proportion as we deal with glory.

We were not made to do discipleship in isolation – we were made to do discipleship in community – in that way we can have identified for us sins to which we are blind – and we can learn to see God’s glory in whole new ways. All creation resounds with His glory – artists simply have one venue of calling our attention to that glory.

Soli Deo Gloria