art, work, and significant questions

I’ve got some things on my mind these days, and flipping through some recent notes on “things I want to revisit someday,” I came across something I want to revisit. (Shocker, I know.)

So I’m heading to Wendell Berry again for today’s Sabbath meditation*.

By ‘art’ I mean all the ways by which humans make the things they need. If we understand that no artist–no maker–can work except by reworking the works of creation, then we see that by our works we reveal what we think of the works of God. How we take our lives from this world, how we work, what work we do, how well we use the materials we use, and what we do with them after we have used them–all these are questions of the highest and gravest religious significance. In answering them, we practice, or do not practice, our religion. [swiped from p. 315, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” in Berry’s essay collection ART OF THE COMMONPLACE, edited by Norman Wirzba]

There’s a lot in this quote worth unpacking, I think, or at least worth taking a few minutes to meditate on: the implications for defining art in this way, in terms of need and creativity; the implications for defining what it means to practice our religion in terms of these questions about our creativity and use of the material world; even the tightening of the chest you might feel, as I do, when you see the phrase “or do not practice” thrown in there.

Take a minute.

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* I’m slightly concerned that citing Wendell Berry might qualify me as a Christian hipster. (Click on the link to see Everyday Liturgy’s recent book review of Brett McCracken’s Hipster Christianity, or visit the Hipster Christianity web site if such a concept piques your interest.)

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4 comments on “art, work, and significant questions

  1. Michael says:

    Doesn’t the Berry quotation suggest that it isn’t “creativity” but “imagination” since we are reworking what God has made rather than making it ourselves? It seems as if this quotation is offering a critique of “creativity.”

    On an unrelated technical note, could you change your settings so that full posts are available for feeds?

  2. elizabeth says:

    Michael,
    I was aware of risking misinterpretation by using the word “creativity” in my gloss, and I think you’re right to point out that it’s more a sort of “imagination” that Berry is talking about, at least as we tend to use those words.

    The reason I decided to use it anyway is because I have come to define “creation,” or “creativity,” or the creative act itself, whatever the belief system of the person doing the creating, as always being a re-creating of that first creation, and of what I see as ongoing Creating in the world. (Whew, lots of creating going on in that sentence!)

    I agree that this quote is offering a critique of creativity as is typically meant by the word, and more: I’d say that Berry is probably critiquing the tendency of humans to put themselves at the center of all they do, which is pretty much always somewhere in whatever Berry says, isn’t it?

    Thanks for your input, Michael. I’d like to hear other thoughts you have on the topic, whether here, in e-mail, or in person.

    And *sigh* I guess I will reward my faithful subscribers by including the full blog post in the feed/e-mail. Thanks for asking.

  3. Thomas says:

    Though I wish it wasn’t so, Berry has become “hip” in some circles because his writings can lend a kind of clique status to people who are localvores or health nuts. It just adds another layer of mystique to people who care about appearance. That’s at least what the context of McCracken’s thought is.

    • elizabeth says:

      Thomas, thanks for this additional insight (and for your review of the book, since that’s what put it on my radar screen). I’ve noticed this same phenomenon with, for instance, the love of Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner among a certain group of educated Christians in the liberal arts, at least among many we knew in Texas. I don’t particularly care for either of those writers (which was basically equal to heresy), so no insider status for me.

      Yesterday I read a guest blog post by McCracken over at imagejournal.org called “The ‘Inner Ring’ Problem,” and it helped me to understand his project, or at least the thoughts behind his project. He distinguished between the super cool “insider status” of hipster–which comes when lines are drawn intentionally to separate the outsiders from the wannabe insiders–and the authentic coolness that can arise organically, where the hipsters aren’t trying to be cool or, well, insiders. (“Wannabe,” “authentic,” and “organic” were McCracken’s words.) I probably didn’t summarize that very well, but you can find it pretty easily over at Image.

      All of that to say, I’m looking forward to reading the book. Thanks again!

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