Art in a Dark World
by Matt Mellema
October 06th, 2016
I’ve had art on the mind lately. This past weekend was the Anselm Society’s yearly kickoff event. Anselm is a fantastic organization dedicated to a “renaissance of the Christian imagination” by building up artists and the churches that support them. I’m involved with the Society as one of their official member artists. I’ve also been helping my local church’s Kalos group–a collection of artists from the church who meet to discuss each other’s art and the role of art in their faith. In other words, a big percentage of my “ministry time” out in the world relates to arts.
All this art time got me thinking. We live in a world of danger and oppression. With terrorism and rioting and unrest and injustice. With wars and rumors of wars. Our country, more hostile to religion by the day, has two major parties that are retreating from “Christian values” as quickly as possible. Problems from homelessness to poverty to sex trafficking are happening just behind my back.
With all that in the world, is art the best way to spend my free time?
Obviously, all those problems demand time and attention. But even as we fight all of those battles, we can’t forget about the arts.
If you don’t believe me, consider The Secret of Kells.
For those who didn’t take my advice, the movie takes place at the Monastery of Kells, an isolated community surrounded by wilderness and ocean at the far edge of the world. The small community lives in constant fear of the Viking bands travelling from town to town, destroying everything in their quest for gold.
To save his community from the Vikings, the leader of the monastery, Abbot Cellach, devotes all the energy of everyone in town to building a wall to keep the invaders out. The Abbot won’t deviate any resources from the wall–even when Brother Aidan comes to the monastery with his renowned Book of Iona. It could be the most beautiful book in the world, with its gold-leaf and radiant colors and its dazzling illuminations. But it’s not finished. And because of the wall, nobody may ever finish it.
Aidan’s conflict with the Abbot comes to a head with Brendan, the Abbot’s young nephew. Brendan, entranced by the beauty of the Book and the world around him, shirks his wall-building to help with the Book. I won’t tell you the rest, because you should just watch the film. I’m serious–stop reading this blog and watch it right now. It’s on Netflix. I can wait.
To its credit, the film presents both sides fairly. Even though we’re supposed to sympathize with Brendan, the Abbot has a good point. He’s not quashing the arts out of spite. He just–reasonably–thinks that every resource should be devoted to the existential crisis marching toward them.
After all, why waste time illuminating the veins of a leaf and the ridges of a wave? To spend your days scouring the woods for those perfect berries to make emerald ink, and spend your nights scribbling drawings on scrolls? Lives were at stake, the Abbot retorts. Nothing else matters beyond keeping people alive.
But (oh, I suppose I should say SPOILER ALERT HERE1) the Abbot’s plans were all in vain. When the Vikings come, they crush the wall easily–as everyone knew they would. By ignoring the book for the sake of the wall, the Abbot did not keep everyone safe. Instead, all he managed to do was put both the Book–and Brendan–in greater danger.
More fundamentally, the Abbot’s efforts destroyed the very thing he wanted to save. The purpose of the wall was to protect his culture. But by squelching the Book, he ensured that, even if he succeeded, there wouldn’t be a culture left worth defending.
The abbot spent all of his energies on a battle that he could never win. And in the process, he risked destroying the things worth saving.
You see, the Book was more than just a collection of pretty pictures and bright colors. It’s a legacy of generations. It’s hope and beauty in a world of darkness and death. It’s significant that when Brendan and Aidan finally finish the Book,2 they don’t keep it locked behind a wall. Instead, Brendan travels with it from town to town. As Aidan notes, the Book is for the world.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t fight poverty or oppression or injustice. But let’s also cultivate art. It reflects the beauty and hope that makes these battles worthwhile.
Like the monks of Kells, we live in a dangerous world filled with darkness and suffering. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore beauty. If anything, it means we need it all the more.
1 Even though that means you ignored my advice to watch the movie.
Oh yeah, spoiler alert.
This blog was first posted at www.mattmellema.com.