Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Staying Power of Art

My husband brings home the most interesting books. This week it's Charles M. Knight: The Artist Who Saw Through Time.

You may think you don't know Knight, but if you're at least forty, you probably do -- even if not by name. Knight was the artist/naturalist who, for many years, was the "go-to" guy for artistic renderings of dinosaurs in museums and textbooks.

Although the jury is still out on what dinosaurs looked like/acted like (in recent years, there's been a switch to quicker moving avian-like as opposed to slower moving reptilian-like) it was Knight's imaginative renderings, based on fossil reconstructions and the scholarship of his day, that captured the public imagination for so many years. When I look at the paintings in this book, especially of his T-Rex and Brontosaurus, I harken back to elementary school...and I also think "yup...that's what's dinosaurs look like." Stephen J. Gould is referenced for saying that "although Knight never published original research in scientific journals, he was more influential in shaping our ideas about ancient extinct animals than any paleontologist who ever lived."

I found this buzzing around my brain this morning as I thought again about what I reflected on in my last post ("Feeling and Thinking"). The power of imaginative work that engages our senses as well as our minds is staggering. Work that captures our curiosity, makes us feel or ponder, has real longevity -- in our own lives and in the life of the culture. It's not that creative artists can't be scholarly -- many creative artists are also scholars, or are creating their works of art (paintings, songs, stories) as part of a responsive engagement to scholarship. But it's the stories/poems/songs/paintings that have the staying power, long after the scientific (or theological) journals are set aside.

For evidence of that, one need only turn to an imaginative storyteller like C.S. Lewis whose heart and imagination capturing work has phenomenal staying power. So does J.R.R. Tolkien's. The pictures these writers painted of a world invaded by grace have an ability to raise questions, stir eternal longings, and move people Godward. Their work lives on in a way that the work of academic theologians of the same era -- and there were some good ones -- simply can't. I'm not saying that good, theological scholars aren't necessary; I'm not even saying that either Lewis or Tolkien saw themselves as theologians. But they were actively engaged people of faith who poured their grace-steeped views of the world into their work, with the result that the gospel truth was so intricately and beautifully woven into their stories that people still see it and marvel and respond to the whole big picture (and sometimes without even seeing all the threads). 

One of the reasons I think it's so deeply necessary for Christians to engage in the arts (beyond the sheer joy of doing so, in response to our very creative God!) is that it's storied/poemed/sung/painted truth that has a lasting power in the shaping of the human soul and a lasting influence on the culture.

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