A version of this article appeared in First Things magazine, February 2009 edition under the title “What Art Can and Can’t Do,” and also appeared in The Best Spiritual Writing 2011 edited by Philip Zaleski

During flirtations with existentialism in my youth, I came to love the mysterious book of Ecclesiastes with its ambiguities and its exquisite sense of the rhythms of life.  I have moved well beyond existential despair in my pilgrimage, but many times I have returned to Ecclesiastes and breathed a prayer of thanks that God saw fit to include such unbleached realism in Holy Scripture.  During the Jewish festival of tents, families read the entire book aloud, a practice I would recommend to certain groups of happy-face Christians today.

For me as a writer, Ecclesiastes became a kind of touchstone, and in time I noticed that the last chapter of Ecclesiastes contains words directed toward people in my own profession.  I sat up and took notice.  “He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs.  The Teacher searched to find just the right words…”  Clearly, the Teacher of long ago knew something of the laborious process I go through each time I approach my computer today.

Then in a sentence packed with mixed metaphors the Teacher concludes, “The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one Shepherd.”  In typical contrapuntal style he adds this tweak, “Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them.  Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.”

The Teacher speaks truth.  For writers, I have learned, there is a time to be a goad and a time to be a firmly embedded nail.

A goad, such as farmers use on oxen and jockeys on horses, prods to action.  Goads cause enough discomfort to get animals—or people—to do something they otherwise might not do.  Over the centuries human history has seen many examples of the creative arts used as goads, and these goads often rattle the powers.  According to the now deceased Russian dissident Andrei Sinyavsky, “Every self-respecting writer of any significance is a saboteur and as he surveys the horizon wondering what to write about, more often than not he will choose some forbidden topic.”

After General Pinochet seized control in Chile, his minions broke the bones in the hands of Victor Jara, whose guitar playing had kindled the hopes of the poor.  This goad, the authoritarian leader could not tolerate; he was eventually machine-gunned.  Similarly, paintings like Picasso’s Guernica have gotten under the skin of dictatorial regimes.  (“Did you do that?” a Fascist soldier asked Picasso reproachfully, pointing to the painting.  “No, you did,” Picasso replied.)

The prophets of the Bible served as goads.  Boiled down, their magnificent poetry reduces to a one-line message: Repent, change your ways, or judgment will come.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, a radical Christian, sought to communicate the abolitionist message to many who had blocked their ears to sermons and jeremiads.  She wrote a novel instead, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which sold 200,000 copies its first year and as much as any other force goaded a nation towards change.

Not long ago we lived through perhaps the most momentous change in modern history.  Within the span of one year, six hundred million people gained freedom, with hardly a shot being fired.  How did it happen?  It will take historians years to sort out all the reasons behind the fall of communism.  As one who lived through the 1960s—a decade when barricades went up in the streets of Paris; when leftists, not rightists, were bombing public buildings in America; and when every intellectual worth his salt was coming down on the side of revolution, I trace the fault line of change back to a lone Russian, his courage hardened to steel in the Gulag, who dared proclaim, “It is a lie.”  The massive documentation assembled by Solzhenitsyn bore witness to a different truth, and one by one the intellectuals of Europe abandoned the illusion of Marxist utopia.

Many Christians in the creative arts are today striving to be goads in the flank of society.  I applaud them, and sometimes join them.  There is a time to be a goad, and as the above examples show, we should not underestimate the effect of the arts in bringing about change.

At the same time, increasingly I have come to see the limitations of goad-like art.  The prophets take up so many pages of the Old Testament because by and large they were spectacularly ineffective.  There was Nathan, of course, who through the sheer power of story stabbed King David to the heart.  And there was Jonah, the reluctant goad who much to his own dismay brought all Nineveh to its knees.  But few of the other prophets had much impact on Israel.  Jeremiah 36 records an all-too-typical response: the offended king simply cut up and burned Jeremiah’s scroll.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn often paid tribute to his colleagues who died unknown in the Gulag, their works memorized and taken to the grave with them, or furtively scrawled down but now lost, buried in tundra caches that will never be discovered.  Six hundred million may have found a new measure of freedom in 1989, but one billion Chinese experienced a crackdown.  Sometimes goads have little effect.

In the United States today, I wonder how much difference Christians are making through the arts.  All the words pouring forth in our magazines and books, for example—are they making a perceptible difference on culture at large?  Do we not end up goading mostly each other?

One reason we make so little difference, I believe, is that the church, like government, prefers propaganda to goads.  The same church that commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel later hired a man called “the Trouserer” to clothe the nude figures.  In modern times, we impose limits on our artists, and as we do so we draw walls around our subculture.  The Christian soldiers of political correctness march onward: articles on abortion published in Christianity Today 25 years ago could never be published today; a writer who dabbles in fantasy literature gets branded New Age; the Christian Medical and Dental Society in the U.S. dares not publish the works of some of its devout British counterparts; Christian leaders jeopardize their careers by speaking favorably of Barack Obama; Tony Campolo loses speaking engagements because of his wife’s views on homosexuality.

I remember one vivid scene from Solzhenitsyn’s memoirs The Oak and the Calf.  For a brief period even the communist government of the Soviet Union acknowledged the genius of Solzhenitsn’s work, and thought (fatally, as it turned out) he might be a goad they could control.  Write moral and uplifting literature, they admonished him; be sure to exclude all “pessimism, denigration, surreptitious sniping.”  I laughed aloud when I first read that scene.  The advice Solzhenitsysn got from the communists bears striking resemblance to what I sometimes hear from evangelical publishers.  Every power, whether Christian or secular, desires moral, uplifting literature—-as long as they get to define what constitutes moral and uplifting.

We cannot expect art always to educate and inspire as well as to portray.  In the words of Alan Paton, literature “will illuminate the road, but it will not lead the way with a lamp.  It will expose the crevasse, but not provide the bridge.  It will lance the boil, but not purify the blood.  It cannot be expected to do more than this; and if we ask it to do more, we are asking too much.”

Keats said that literature sometimes demands of us Negative Capability: the ability to accept multiplicity, mystery, and doubt without reaching out for the illusory comforts of certainty and fact.  Faith, too, demands a kind of Negative Capability, and that does not always sit well with the folks who distribute “Christian art” or those who consume it.  For this reason, among others, some necessary goads never find their target.  Like the works of Solzhenitsyn’s anonymous comrades, they remain buried in the tundra.

There is a time to be a goad, and a time to be a firmly embedded nail.  A goad prods to immediate action, but a firmly embedded nail settles deeper, as an indelible marker of what T. S. Eliot called “the permanent things.”

Toward the end of his life, Paul Gauguin painted a huge triptych pulling together all his styles of art.  In an extraordinarily unsubtle move, he scrawled across the painting, “Who are we?  Why are we here?  Where are we going?”  That triptych, now hanging in the Boston Museum of Art, poses a grand summation of Gauguin’s work and a grand summation of the questions to which modernity has no answer.  Soon after completing the work, Gauguin attempted suicide.

Loren Eiseley, a rare individual who demonstrated skill both in science and in art, sums up the answers to Gauguin’s questions discernible from science:

In a universe whose size is beyond human imagining, where our world floats like a dust mote in the void of night, men have grown inconceivably lonely.  We scan the time scale and the mechanisms of life itself for portents and signs of the invisible.  As the only thinking mammals on the planet—perhaps the only thinking animals in the entire sidereal universe—the burden of consciousness has grown heavy upon us.  We watch the stars, but the signs are uncertain….

Lights come and go in the night sky.  Men, troubled at last by the things they build, may toss in their sleep and dream bad dreams, or lie awake while the meteors whisper greenly overhead.  But nowhere in all space or on a thousand worlds will there be men to share our loneliness.  There may be wisdom; there may be power; somewhere across space great instruments, handled by strange, manipulative organs, may stare vainly at our floating cloud wrack, their owners yearning as we yearn.  Nevertheless, in the nature of life and in the principles of evolution we have had our answer.  Of men elsewhere, and beyond, there will be none forever.

We resemble the frogs at a marsh croaking, “We’re here, we’re here, we’re here!” Eiseley goes on to say.  We do not know why we croak, or who indeed is listening; like frogs, we croak by dumb instinct.

In one of Miguel de Unamuno’s ironic stories, a character confronts the author with this startling fact: he, a creation of human thought and genius, is more demonstrably real than the author, a product of blind animality.  Unamuno thus diagnosed a fatal flaw in modern humanity’s conception of self.

Civilization once looked to art as the means of passing on wisdom from one generation to the next.  The act of writing was invented, after all, to convey the sacred: permanent things must be passed on in a permanent way, hence the hieroglyphs on Egyptian tombs.  But a civilization that no longer believes in permanent things, one that holds to no objective truths, resorts to de-construction, not construction.

David Remnick contrasts the modern writers in Russia with the tradition of the Great Russian Writer, figures like Tolstoy, Gogol, and even Solzhenitsyn who represented both sagacity and idealism.  Nowadays the liberated writers, free to join the decadent chorus of modernity, are deliberately destroying that tradition, brick by brick.  One recent story begins with a mythic scene familiar to all Russians, an old man describing to a young boy the Nazi siege of Leningrad.  The story ends, though, with the old man raping the young boy.  No convention, no memory is safe from assault.

As voices such as T. S. Eliot, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor have reminded us, the modern world must look to Christians, who stand virtually alone in seeing the need for (or even believing in) firmly embedded nails.  On the modern landscape of a decaying Western civilization, Christians still cling to a view that ascribes meaning and worth to individual human beings.  The novelist Reynolds Price once said there is one sentence above all that people crave from stories: The Maker of all things loves and wants me.  Christians still believe in that story.

Perhaps the very existence of art—its inherent, permanent-seeming worth, as well as its echo of original Creation—can be a pointer to a grand Artist, a rumor of transcendence.  Five hundred years ago the Renaissace scholar Pico della Mirandola delivered his famous “Oration on the Dignity of Man” which defined the role of humanity in creation.  After God had created the animals, all the essential roles had been filled, but “the Divine Artificer still longed for some creature which might comprehend the meaning of so vast an achievement, which might be moved with love at its beauty and smitten with awe at its grandeur.”  To contemplate and appreciate all the rest, to reflect on meaning, to share in the power and exuberance of creativity, to revere and to hallow—these were the roles reserved for the species made in God’s image.

When I look back on my own conversion, I cannot credit a gospel tract or an altar call or an exposition of John 3:16.  I had encountered these things many times over in childhood and had learned to mistrust them because of the lies my church in the fundamentalist South had told me.  Rather, nature, classical music, and romantic love formed the channel of grace that awakened my senses to perception of God.  Through that channel I came to believe, first in a good world and then in a good God.  It is a terrible thing to feel gratitude and have no one to thank, to feel awe and have no one to worship.  Gradually, prompted by beauty and by art, I returned to the castoff faith of my childhood.

“The Catholic writer,” said Flannery O’Connor, “insofar as he [or she] has the mind of the Church, will feel life from the standpoint of the central Christian mystery: that it has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for.”  Modern humanity does not perceive the world as worth God dying for.  We Christians must demonstrate it.

I have a hunch that as history looks back on the twentieth century, the most chaotic of all centuries, Christian artists will endure for having hammered in a few firmly embedded nails.  Creation is beautiful and good, and humanity upholds God’s image within it; creation is fallen, evil, corrupt; creation can be, and will be, restored—that triune intuition of Christian faith provides a template of meaning that at least attempts an answer to Gauguin’s questions.  Who else is even offering one?

Note the clues to this triune intuition in Vincent Van Gogh’s revealing letter to his brother Theo:

I feel more and more that we must not judge of God from this world, it’s just a study that didn’t come off.  What can you do with a study that has gone wrong—if you are fond of the artist, you do not find much to criticize—you hold your tongue.  But you have a right to ask for something better…. The study is ruined in so many ways.  It is only a master who can make such a blunder, and perhaps that is the best consolation we can have out of it, since in that case we have a right to hope that we’ll see the same creative hand get even with itself.

Christians believe, of course, that the master was not the one who blundered, and yet Van Gogh’s instincts are deeply Christian (he was, after all, a lapsed minister).  This world bears the stamp of genius, the stain of ruin, and the promise of restoration.

Fray Luis Ponce de León, one of the masters in literature from Spain’s Golden Age, barely survived the Inquisition.  Fray Luis, who had offended authorities by translating the Song of Songs into Spanish and criticizing the text of the Vulgate, was dragged from his classroom in the midst of a lecture at the university in Salamanca.  Four years of prison and torture followed.  Then hysteria faded and the stooped, nearly broken professor was allowed to return to his classroom.  He shuffled in, opened his notes, and began his lecture with a phrase that became legendary in Spain: “Como decíamos ayer.”  “As we were saying yesterday,” he began, and continued his lecture where he had left off before the rude interruption.

Those words can be heard in Russia today.  A regime that tried harder than any other to kill off God, instead ended up committing suicide.  I believe, truly believe that sometime in the future, as civilization continues to collapse into an intellectual and moral vacuum, other voices will take up Fray Luis’s refrain.  Como decíamos ayer.  “As we were saying yesterday.”

What writers from our century will endure?  Surely the poets T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden will make the list, both informed by Christian sensibility.  Solzhenitsyn no doubt will, albeit more for the raw force of his words than for their craft.  Perhaps J. R. R. Tolkien will also be read a century from now, his invention of another world still shedding light on this one.

One of those artists, T. S. Eliot, makes an interesting study.  Faced with the political crises of communism and nazism, for twenty years he wrote little poetry, concerning himself instead with more “urgent” matters such as politics, economics, and pragmatic schemes to improve society.  In such works as Idea of a Christian Society, After Strange Gods, and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, he turned away from firmly embedded nails and toward goads.  Yet who reads those works today?  Eliot’s poetry easily outlasted his well-intentioned ideas.  Can we learn a lesson from Eliot?  Perhaps the best way to achieve the values we approve is not to talk about them all the time, or to try and legislate them, but rather to create literature and art in which they are placed as firmly embedded nails.

There is a time to be a goad and a time to be a nail.  Lest the aspiring writer get too inflated with his or her own significance, however, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes adds with a sigh, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.”

In the final analysis, the sharpest goads and the sturdiest nails merely add to the burdensome accumulation of artistic creation.  I have that sense every time I enter a bookstore and scan through the dozens of new titles that have appeared in the previous week.  The “self-help” section promises me a hundred new ways to save my marriage, thin my thighs, succeed in business.  If these work, why are there so many divorces, fat thighs, and business failures?

Of making many books there is no end.  As a person who makes a living at writing, I confess that regularly—every five minutes or so—I must battle artistic pride.  All art is an act of arrogance.  As I write this sentence, I have the chutzpah to believe it will be worth your time to read it.  I, a person you have probably never met, hereby demand your attention.  Listen to me, please, without the possibility of reciprocation.  Subject yourself to my words and thoughts.

Just as I begin to slip into my seat of authority and believe the jacket copy the publishers write about me, the Teacher brings me back to earth.  I am a drone, cranking out yet another book to bend the shelves of libraries and bookstores.

The Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney provides the third metaphor of art, in a striking observation about John 8, the only scene from the Gospels that shows Jesus in the act of writing.  Jesus left us relatively few words—a person could memorize them all—and he spoke with such economy and precision that each can be seen as a goad and a nail.  Only once, though, did Jesus write, as far as we know.  It came at the tense moment when Pharisees brought to him a woman caught in the act of adultery, demanding that Jesus pronounce the death penalty.  Jesus stooped and drew figures in the sand.

Here is Heaney’s interpretation of the scene, in which he finds an allegory for poetry:

The drawing of those characters [in the sand] is like poetry, a break with the usual life but not an absconding from it.  Poetry, like the writing, is arbitrary and marks time in every possible sense of that phrase.  It does not say to the accusing crowd or to the helpless accused, “Now a solution will take place,” it does not propose to be instrumental or effective.  Instead, in the rift between what is going to happen and whatever we would wish to happen, poetry holds attention for a space, functions not as distraction but as pure concentration, a focus where our power to concentrate is concentrated back on ourselves.

For both poetry and prose, there is a time to spur to action, and a time to instruct with wisdom, and also a time merely to fill spaces of attention.

Jesus, who had participated in the design of 20,000 abstract designs on butterflies and half a million species of beetles, left no lasting works of art for us to admire from his sojourn on earth.  He chose as his medium not plates of gold or rolls of papyrus, which could be preserved by the church and revered as icons, but rather a palette of Palestinian sand.  The next rainstorm that came along obliterated every trace of Jesus’ only written words.

Jesus had come primarily to change lives, to write his words on the hearts of his followers.  Following in those footsteps, the apostle Paul would later say to the Corinthians, “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody.”  Both Jesus and Paul knew that only one thing will survive into eternity from this planet: the souls of individual human beings.  We deceive ourselves with delusory talk about the “permanence of art”: of the seven wonders of the ancient world, six did not survive into the Middle Ages.

Czech novelist Milan Kundera says that he always objected to the cliche, “A life is like a work of art,” because art is precisely unlike life, imposing an order that life does not have.  He made an exception, however, with dissident playwright Vaclav Havel, who went on to become president of the Czech Republic.  Havel’s life, said Kundera, was ordered and structured, just like art.  Actually, Kundera’s comment about Havel should be true of every Christian.

As I sit at home and grapple with adjectives and adverbs, my wife works as a chaplain on the night shift at a hospice.  Tonight she will probably see someone die.  She will break the news to the family, listen to their grief, offer words of comfort.  She will touch their souls.  Humbly, ashamedly, I confess that before such acts my own profession shrinks into insignificance.  I am, as Seamus Heaney noted, scribbling in the sand—filling spaces, marking time.

Art nourishes the soul in wonderful ways, and may be an essential part of our humanity, and yet it represents one offering among many, perhaps higher forms of service.  In modern society, we elevate art because we have dethroned so much else.

In a moment of despair, one of the last century’s finest poets wrote this glum assessment of his craft: “Political social history would be no different if Dante, Michelangelo, Byron had never lived.  Nothing I wrote against Hitler prevented one Jew from being killed.  In the end, art is small beer.”  Auden exaggerates, I think, yet I accept his corrective to the usual arrogance of art.  There is a time for goads, and a time for nails; there is also a time to recognize that artists are scribbling in the sand, filling the interstices of life, knowing that their creation will be stepped on, and washed away by raindrops.

In full awareness of its limited role, though, I am convinced that we need art now more than ever, the kind of art that humbly fills spaces in our lives.  Movies and television and video games are currently fashioning images far worse and more horrifying than the world we live in.  Compared to any other time in history, we moderns scream and shout at each other.  Listen to the music on any Top 40 station.  Visit a museum of contemporary art.  The world today contains no subtlety, no silence, no spaces.

One year when he lived in Bolivia, the priest Henri Nouwen saw the movie Stuntman just before Advent.  It overwhelmed him.  “The movie was so filled with images of greed and lust, manipulation and exploitation, fearful and painful sensations, that it filled all the empty spaces that could have been blessed by the spirit of Advent,” he said.  (If Nouwen reacted this way to  Stuntman, I certainly hope he never encountered Pulp Fiction!)

For those of us who labor in the arts and who believe in transcendence, here is a place to start.  Some are called to be prophetic goads, and some giants may hammer in firmly embedded nails.  But the rest of us can aspire, with no tinge of shame, to scribbling in the sand.  Spaces need filling.

The father of cellist Yo-Yo Ma spent World War II in Paris, where he lived alone in a garret throughout the German occupation.  In order to restore sanity to his world, he would memorize violin pieces by Bach during the day and at night, during blackout, he played them alone in the dark.  The sounds made by the reverberating strings held out the promise of order and hope and beauty.  Later his son, Yo-Yo, took up the father’s advice to play a Bach suite from memory every night before going to bed.  Yo-Yo Ma says, “This isn’t practicing, it’s contemplating.  You’re alone with your soul.”

I know of a woman whose neighbor learned he was going blind.  As his sight began to fail, the man booked a plane to Amsterdam and spent a week in the Van Gogh museum.  He wanted these images to soak into his brain as his last visual memories on earth.

I will never forget one encounter with art’s wondrous power.  I was visiting Rome, and I wanted to fill each day with the treasures offered by the churches and museums of that great city.  The first day I arose well before dawn and took a bus to the Tiber River, just outside Vatican City.  I stood on the bridge colonnaded with Bernini’s angels, and watched the sun rise, glinting orange off the still surface of the water.  Slowly, quietly, I walked the few blocks to St. Peter’s.  I strolled its vast spaces long before most tourists arrived, at a time so silent that each of my steps echoed off its graceful walls.  Except for a few faithful nuns kneeling in prayer, I was alone.

After a while I climbed stairs to the roof, where I could examine the statues and look out over the plaza.  I saw a long line snaking outside in the plaza and, assuming them to be tourists, I congratulated myself on having beat the madding crowd.  They were not tourists, however, rather a choir of 200 strong bused in from Germany.  As they filed in, I went back inside and stood on the balcony of the dome designed by Michelangelo.  Beneath me, the choir formed a large circle under the dome and began to sing a capella.

Some of the words were in Latin, some in German, it did not matter.  Inside that magnificent sheltering dome with its perfect acoustics, I was virtually suspended in their music.  I had the feeling that if I lifted my arms, the medium itself would support me.

Michelangelo, arguably the greatest artist who has ever lived, later confessed that his work had crowded out his own faith.  As his life drew to a close, he penned these lines:

So now, from this mad passion
which made me take art for an idol and a king
I have learnt the burden of error that it bore…
The world’s frivolities have robbed me of the time
That I was given for reflecting upon God.

Perhaps.  But Michelangelo and others like him have through their labors—sometimes as goads, sometimes as nails, sometimes as scribblers in the sand—helped turn us from the world’s frivolities and given us time for such reflection.  My other memories of Italy involve pollution, long lines, traffic gridlock, and snarling motorbikes.  But for this one moment inside St. Peter’s I had inhabited a glorious space not on earth, a moment of time not in time.  Art had done its work.

Copyright © 2009 by Philip Yancey