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by Erica Hughes
No ideas but in things.
—William Carlos Williams
Salvation is not an idea—but a person, God’s body. The best poems happen in the body, like communion. But that intimacy seems to frighten most Christians (even Reformed Christians who value and honor the body), causing them to be wary of the fleshiness of good poetry—of good art.
In 1957, Flannery O’Conner, a Catholic fiction writer (a better writer than Tolkien and Lewis in my humble opinion), wrote “The Church and the Fiction Writer”—an essay discussing the relationship between the Catholic (or Christian) fiction writer and church doctrines. According to O’Connor, “The writer learns, perhaps more quickly than the reader, to be humble in the face of what is. What is is all he has to do with; the concrete is his medium; and he will realize eventually that fiction can transcend its limitations only by staying within them.” For O’Connor, mystery is innate in the physicality of the “things” themselves—not in a writer’s desire to “prove the truth of his faith.”
As a poet and writer, I have learned to keep close to O’Conner and to be unafraid to write the hot and sweaty, the throbbing and rousing, the buttery and itchy body.
Currently, I am pursuing my MFA in poetry. I am continually awestruck by the freedom my colleagues–most of whom are nonbelievers–seem to possess. In their writing, my colleagues get up real close to the body. They inspect it. They are undaunted by orgasms and feces, kisses on the neck and lynching, broken bones and the cruelty of earth, death and God—all things, experiences, sensations that happen in the body. Unfortunately, many believers would shy away from most of my colleagues’ work, from my work, because it’s honest, because it gets too close. Some believers would even call this work ungodly. I disagree.
What we, the church, consider good art—nice blonde Jesus holding a lamb, or Jesus hanging naked on the cross without any genitals, or worship songs with the same three chord progressions—is terrible art. In fact, what most protestants consider art is laughable to a contemporary secular world that is producing artists like Solange, Juan Fellipe Herrera, and Barry Jenkins. The secular world seems to understand that the only way to understand ourselves and the cosmos is through the body. I would add that the only way to understand salvation is through our bodies—and through the ripped up and resurrected body of Jesus.
The Apostle Paul understood the significance of God becoming a man, of God taking on a body—he understood what it meant to commune with Jesus in his body. In his letter to the Galatian church, Paul is grieved by the Galatians’ willingness to “[turn] to a different gospel” than the one he originally presented to them (Galatians 1:6). At the end of the letter, Paul writes some astonishing words: “Finally, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (6:17). Paul bore those marks not in heart, not in his mind—but on his body.
The work of artists, of singers, poets, and painters alike, is to commune not only with the physical world around us but also with the risen Lord. The best artists (regardless of religion), through the medium of “What is,” reveal something regarding the mystery of the human experience, the mystery of the universe in the physical, and our need for salvation. Moreover, O’Connor, in her essay, claims that “the modern world is divided–one part of it trying to eliminate mystery, while another part tries to rediscover it in disciplines less personally demanding than religion.” The church should not shy away from this mystery—of this communion.
The church must make room for the body—for artists—in order to understanding communion with God in an entirely new dimension, in a more holistic way. I know many fantastic artists who love Jesus but are frustrated with the church’s shallow understanding of the purpose of art. The church often fails to consider that without our bodies, we cannot love God with our hearts and our minds and all our strength—that Jesus died not only to free us from our besetting sins but to raise bodies with him.
In this season of Lent, let us to consider John 1:14—”the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Consider Christ’s flogging, his death and burial, his rising as poetry—as communion with our bodies. Like everything else in the world, we experience salvation physically in the fleshy poem of Christ Jesus—a lyric that was split open and beaten and poured out for many.
Erica Hughes is an alumna of Dordt College, is working toward her MFA in Creative Writing, Poetry at California State University, Fresno and teaches freshmen composition there as well.
Art: Fertility Woman by Jerusha Samuel