Comment magazine has just published my essay on Charles Wright’s poetry, “Show Me the World.” The piece focuses on Wright’s most recent collection, Sestets, which I highly recommend, along with his earlier collections Negative Blue and Scar Tissue.
Here’s a snippet from the opening of the article:
Of late, a stream of Christian cultural criticism has encouraged conservative evangelicals to “look for God” in contemporary culture. Exhorting us to overcome a rather Manichean dissection of the world into holy and profane, this mode of cultural engagement encourages us to “find God” in contemporary music, Hollywood movies, and various forms of popular culture.
I’m not convinced this is the best hermeneutic frame for appreciating the arts. It still tends to instrumentalize the arts as a conduit for a Gospel “message” or “theistic” propositions. The result is too often a fixation on God-language in cultural artifacts or—worse—belaboured allegorical readings which see “Christ figures” everywhere.
We should expect art to be more oblique. And instead of asking artists to show us God, we should want them to reveal the world—to expand the world, to make worlds that expand creation with their gifts of co- and sub-creative power. The calling of painters and poets, sculptors and songwriters is not always and only to hymn the Creator but to also and often be at play in the fields of the Lord, mired and mucking about in the gifted immanence that is creation. With that rich creational mandate, a Christian affirmation of the arts refuses the instrumentalist justification that we “find God” in our plays and poetry. In a way that is provocatively close to the aestheticism of Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, such a creational framing of the arts grants license for art to be quite “useless” —to (almost) be art for its own sake, for the sake of delight and play, for the sheer wonder and mystery of creating. Some of our best artists show us corners of creation we wouldn’t have seen otherwise—and often because they’ve just given birth to a possibility hitherto only latent in the womb of creation.
Unhooking the arts from a “theological” instrumentalism also grants space for the arts to reveal the brokenness of creation without being supervised by a banal moralism. A painting or a poem reveals the world with a harrowing attention that will sometimes bring us face-to-face with what we’ve managed to willfully ignore up to that point.
In sum, the arts can be a means of what we might call “horizontal” revelation without necessarily being connected to “vertical” revelation. Like the book of Esther, God might never show up. Nonetheless, the Creator might best be honoured when we face up to the puzzling, mysterious nuances of his creation.
This is why I have become a devotee of the poetry of Charles Wright—not because I “find God” in his poetry (though he does make some cameos, often in the second person, like in prayers), but because through his poetry I see the world again, the world that’s been in front of me this whole time.