Friday, August 30, 2013

Art and the Noble Idea by Marilyn Arnold for THIS PEOPLE 1981

(This article is not available that I can see anywhere on the internet and because of its unique point of view, I think it's important that is is accessible. I have typed this article from a copy of a copy. Any errors in spelling, grammar or other are mine.)

Art and the Noble Idea
by Marilyn Arnold, THIS PEOPLE volume 2, pages 24-27, 1981

At the invitation of THIS People, Dr. Marilyn Arnold, director of the Center for the study of Christian Values in Literature, discusses the value of quality literature that achieves a meaningful blend of artistic form and moral content. THIS PEOPLE applauds the Center's efforts to encourage and foster both the reading and writing of such literature.

One of the goals of the new Center for the Study of Christian Values in Literature is, of course, to encourage the writing and reading of wholesome literature. Another is to help readers and writers realize that wholesome content alone, does not make good literature. Good literature is also art. Putting an inspirational thought into verse form, simply making it rhyme, in other words, does not create art, And instead of enhancing the thought, a rhyme for its own sake demeans the thought by consigning it to a form that is not worthy of its content. Giving artistic expression to a noble idea, particularly one central in religious faith, requires more than the accomplishment of rhythm and rhyme. It requires the discovery of a form equally noble.

In our efforts to promote what is decent and uplifting as opposed to what is lewd and degrading, we sometimes tend to judge a piece of writing or a film solely on its surface content. Conversely, critics and reviewers who praise gifted but sometimes morally irresponsible writers tend to judge their work solely on the basis of its form. We find, then, some Mormon readers who demand nothing more of writers than inoffensive content, and some literary critics who demand nothing more of writers than technical dexterity.

Truly great literature, on the other hand, is produced only in the integration of significant content with significant art. Readers have a right to demand that the literature they read tells the truth and at the same time moves them by the power of its thought and art. The morality of art lies in its capacity for telling the truth and upholding worthy values in a form that is also true and value-centered.

Some writers in the Mormon culture, for example, rightly want to affirm Church practices and beliefs. So they construct a story or a verse in which the characters or the narrators rather mechanically recite the cliches that we have all read or heard dozens of times in talks and lessons and conversations. Even the rebels in these pieces sound like all the rebels we have ever heard or ever heard described. Thus, our society has adopted a set of acceptable attitudes and aphorisms which writers simply rehearse over and over again. when this moralistic but artless writing is accepted as the model for Mormon literature, it perpetuates itself and the gifted Mormon writer has a difficult time finding an audience. Too many readers would rather have their back scratched than their minds engaged.

The Mormon writer who is truly an artist will search out the core of his or her religious belief and will try to convey the nature and importance of that search in a fresh way, vital way. The artist will labor to discover the literary forms that enhance and illuminate belief. To see how important it is that religious truth be conveyed in a vehicle worthy of it, we need only compare the highly poetic King James Version of the Bible with other versions which try to simplify and clarify the King James Language and in so doing erase its poetry. As uplifting as the content may still be in these versions, it loses most of its power and much of its meaning when it is translated into supposedly simple language, into a form that is unworthy of its content.

A comparison of the King James version with other version of the 1 Corinthians 13:1-2 makes it obvious why most of us prefer the King James Bible over other translations. The King James Bible seems to have an inherent "religious" quality, and not solely because we are accustomed to its scriptural language. It "sounds" the way we think religious doctrine ought to sound. The language is elevated. we sometimes forget that the delivery of the content, words in combination to make sense, are only part of the communication process. A reader can know what words say without exercising either intellect or heart. Paul's famous discourse on charity begins in this way in the King James Bibles: "Though I speak with the tongue of men and of angels, and have no charity, I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could removes mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing."

This is the Living Bible Paraphrased version: "If I had the gift of being able to speak in other languages without learning them, and could speak in every language there is in all of heaven and earth, but didn't love others, I would only be making a noise. If I had the gift of prophecy and knew all about what is going to happen in the future, knew everything about everything, but didn't love others, what good would it do? Even if I had the gift of faith so that I could speak to a mountain and make it move, I would still be worth nothing at all without love."

The Living Bible Paraphrased whose language is anything but moving, removes every poetic feature from this passage and renders it lengthy and dull. In so doing it intimates that the doctrine of charity is common and dull.  Poetry simply cannot be paraphrased successfully. How can anyone suppose that a statement like "If I had the gift of being able to speak in other languages without learning them and could speak in every language there is in all of heaven and earth" is more comprehensible than "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels'? The King James language is concrete, condensed, and full of images that suggest a great deal more than they say. The Living Bible is abstract, vague, wordy and totally without the power of suggestion. Its rendering of "have not charity" as "didn't love other" dilutes the meaning and the force of the phrase. And its transformation of "I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal" to I would only be making noise" totally enervates the line. the similes lost in the process had carried 90% of the meaning. Just as evident are the differences between the two versions of the second verse where understand "all mysteries, all knowledge, " becomes knowing "everything about everything." Generalities like this rarely clarify. Not only is the effect of the abandoned parallel structures lost in the Living Bible version, but simple, clean statements are needlessly amplified. For example, "I am nothing" becomes "would still be worth nothing at all." Does the latter do anything to explain the former? Of course not. It only obscures the meaning and depletes the impact of the original statement.

The point is, lofty idea, religious truths, must be carried in a form that does not detract from them, that does not make them appear ordinary, that carries a sense of mystery that is itself something of a marvel. John Donne's (1572-1631) fourteenth of the Holy Sonnets is an example of a poem that skillfully integrates form and content to create a unified piece of art:

Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Obviously, the poem is written in the poetic language of an earlier era, but its power registers in our mind and hearts nevertheless. It is also written in sonnet form, which means that it has fourteen lines and a special stanzaic and rhyming requirement. We see that the thought takes a turn after each group of four lines, and that the final couplet states a paradox that is the climax of the poem.

This sonnet expresses the mixes anguish and hope of Donne's belief, and emphasizes his awareness of his insufficient faith. His language is sometimes stark and his images shocking. He purposely strains both language and image as he constructs startling contrasts. He does not grow sentimental over himself as a sinner. Instead, he recognizes that his willful heart does not always see God of its own accord. And so he pleads, "Batter my heart, three-personed God," knowing that only through broken-hearted submission can he triumph, only through humility can he find spiritual greatness. (And the failure of paraphrase is obvious when we not how weak my paraphrases are in comparison with Donne's poem. Paraphrase is useful, but it is no substitute for poetry.) The incremental force of "break, blow, burn" is enhanced by the alliterating b's as the poet begs God to "o'erthrow" him and thus "make {him}new."

The poet expresses his love for God and his desire to be loved in turn, but then confesses that he is "betrothed" to God's enemy and begs God to "divorce" him, to "break that knot" that binds him to the Evil One. He begs God to imprison him, for he believes that unless he is God's prisoner he can never be free, "nor ever chaste" unless ravished by God.

Most of us do not pray to God to batter us, to break us, to imprison, us and to ravish us. We can hardly conceive of either prayer or salvation in those terms. But through such language Donne forces us to confront our own spiritual natures and needs. He reminds us that , like him, we may have gone so long in our own ways and in the company of Satan that we will not find the way of faith to be simple and easy. We may have to be wrenched into purity and shocked violently into belief. Donne's strong, active verbs may not be what we expect in a religious poem – batter, knock, breathe, shine, seek - o'erthrow, bend, break, blow, burn, usurped, labor, divorce, untie, take, imprison, enthrall, ravish. But, then, turning from sin to God may not be something accomplished passively. We should note, too, that Donne sets the conditions for his spiritual recovery, in his final couplet, in balanced and transposed rhetoric; except this is done that, that shall never happen except this is done.

Compare the sincerity and intellectual power of Donne's poem with the absence of those qualities in a rather typical piece of "religious verse" on a similar subject, "Prayer" by Gail Brook Burket:

I do not ask to walk smooth paths
Nor bear an easy load.
I pray for strength and fortitude
To climb the rock strewn road.
Give me such courage I can scale
The hardest peaks alone
And transform every stumbling block
Into a stepping stone.

Reading this verse we find ourselves aware mainly of its rhyme and rhythm. In fact, they are about all we notice. A glance back at Donne's poem confirms that is does indeed rhyme and does indeed have a distinct rhythmic pattern. But in Donne's poem the rhyme and rhythm are integral to the poem; they work with the language and the idea. We never sense that Donne is tacking on a word or a phrase for the sake of mechanics, whereas in Burket every word is chosen primarily for the sake of the rhythm and the rhyme.

Like Donne, Burket says that a life of faith is not easy, but for all the high-mindedness of Burket's prayer, it does little more than acknowledge abstractly that we should ask for difficulties to make us strong. And the poem implies that for god people like us, it will surely be no trick at all to turn "every stumbling block into a stepping stone." The Burket verse expresses a nice bit of sentiment, but it presents to fresh insights and no challenges, either in  its poetic form or its idea. It does not make us think; hence, it cannot lead us to any discoveries. It threatens none of our preconceived notions; it is unremarkable and unmemorable. Not only is its rhythm sing-songy and its rhymes contrived, but its language is full of abstractions and cliches. The verse is typified by abstract terms like strength, fortitude, and courage, and by over-worked expressions like "smooth paths," "bear and easy load," "scale... peaks," "stumbling block," and "stepping stone."

Perhaps, worse still, the verse purports to be a prayer– we assume to deity– but it suggests nothing of what might be required of the supplicant. It merely asks some undefined essence to award its speaker certain valuable traits of character. There is no sense of God, much less of his awesome stature, in the verse, more any sense of the gap our sins create between us and our Maker.

Discussion of the two pieces could go on and on, but I think the point has been made. Making a prayer to God for any reason, is not a mundane act especially when what is sought is of great importance to the seeker. It deserves poetic treatment of the highest order rather than mere versification.

We who are directly associated with the Center for the Study of Christian Values in Literature are optimistic (some might say "naive") enough to believe that eventually we can make a difference in what is written and read . We can encourage religious artists and cultivate an appreciative audience for them, we can write literary criticism that insists on morality in both form and content, we can provide a forum for the expression of Christian values in literature, and we can join forces with others across the country who have similar concerns. Who knows, we may create a taste where there was none before for the poetry of John Donne and John Milton and for the King James Bible. And we may even discover a John Donne among us, which discovery we will celebrate in artistic songs of praise.