THEOPOETICS: ON THE CHRISTIAN ARTIST WITH REFERENCE TO KIERKEGAARD (WIP)
This article, a little more on the academic side, is in effect a condensed version of my entire DPhil thesis, the full title of which is “Theopoetics: On the Task of the Christian Artist with Continual Reference to Kierkegaard”. It is a lightly edited version of a paper I presented to the Oxford University Modern Theology graduate seminar on 23rd February 2015. As such. it is a 5,000 word summary of a 100,000 word project, but it also contains in particular material from the final, more constructive chapter which I am currently writing. So I welcome your constructive feedback, criticism and challenges to it, but I am covering myself by saying ‘please be gracious’ as it is very much a work in progress! In the article, I will define what I mean by ‘theopoetics’, give a quick survey of Søren Kierkegaard’s own theopoetry, place it on a suggested pair of communicative spectra, make an evaluation about what kind of communication is more valuable to the Christian artist, and lastly examine in brief some modern theopoetic case-studies.
To begin with, a few words about “theopoetics”: the term “theopoetics” seems to have been coined in the 1960s and 70s by the American writers Stanley Hopper, David Miller, and Amos Wilder, particularly in the latter’s 1976 text Theopoetic: Theology and the Religious Imagination. Since then, it has been picked up and developed as a technical term for an emerging sub-discipline in theology that encompasses elements of process thought, narrative analysis and postmodernism, a discipline being pioneered by writers such as Catherine Keller, John Caputo and Roland Faber, among others. These days theopoetics even has its own website, ‘theopoetics.net’, its own journal and its own annual conference in that most studiously religious and agreeable of cities, San Diego, California. And the process theologians who contribute to this movement often appropriate Søren Kierkegaard, the famous Danish writer of the early nineteenth century, for their purposes. For example, in the recent 2013 book Theopoetic folds: philosophising mutlifariousness, by Faber and Jeremy Fackenthal, to which Oxford’s own Paul Fiddes contributed a chapter on Kant, Iris Murdoch and Julia Kristeva, we also find a chapter on “Kierkegaardian theopoeisis” by Sam Laurent.[i] The chapter “provides a theopoetics of the divine-human relation by describing Kierkegaard’s anthropological view in which the spirit is included in human subjectivity” and “cites selfhood as an ongoing process inclusive of multiplicity and theopoeisis.”[ii] In this breed of theopoetics, then, Kierkegaard is portrayed as a postmodern precursor who offers insight into the unfolding processes of God and self.
I say all of this to clarify that this is emphatically not the kind of theopoetics that I am interested in, largely because I do not share the beliefs of some of these thinkers that God and the world have been interdependent from all time and that God does not know the future. Rather, for this article and my thesis, “theopoetics” primarily means “human poetic making as a means of communicating theological ideas” or “theological artwork”, and only secondarily has to do with God’s own poetic making. (Here “artwork” is taken in the broadest sense, as including visual, literary, audial art etc.) So while it may be the case that, as Sylvia Walsh (the best commentator on Kierkegaard’s aesthetics along with George Pattison and our own Joel Rasmussen) argues, aspects of Kierkegaard’s thought might be used as the starting points for “a theopoetics in which creation, like the poetic productions of the poet, may be understood in aesthetic terms as a work of art by God”,[iii] that is not my central interest here. Instead, I will be focusing on the concept of artistic making as a means of communicating (specifically Christian) theological ideas and the best way that this can be done, a subject which I believe Kierkegaard is extremely helpful for thinking about. In other words I will here be attempting a theology of Christian artwork. For this reason the word ‘Theopoetics’ in my title could arguably be changed to ‘Christopoetics’, and the jury is still out about whether it will be before I submit my thesis. However, I’m sticking to ‘Theopoetics’ for now, for the reasons given above, and simply because I think it’s a catchier-sounding term!
So, why is Kierkegaard so helpful for thinking about this kind of theopoetics as well? Professor Ward originally advertised the presentation of this article as a paper to the Oxford Modern Theology graduate seminar as just being called ‘Theopoetics’ (which I think confirms my suspicions about the catchiness of the term) but I made sure to email him to ask him to include ‘Kierkegaard’ in the title as well, to avoid my being accused of false advertising. Ironically enough, I originally wanted to write my DPhil just on ‘Theopoetics’, but ended up using Kierkegaard as well, and one cynical reason that you are hearing about Kierkegaard today is because doctoral students need an established thinker to anchor their dissertation to and can’t just write whatever they want out of their own heads. But more positively, I chose to anchor my project to Kierkegaard because I believe he is uniquely respected as a philosopher, a writer of literature, and a theologian each, and thus as a Christian poetic maker. In Kierkegaard studies, there is a constant, ongoing argument about whether Kierkegaard is really a ‘philosopher’, a ‘poet’, or a ‘theologian’. Thus there are always books appearing with titles such as Kierkegaard as Philosopher, The Philosophy of Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard: A Kind of Poet, The Literary Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard as Religious Thinker, Kierkegaard as Theologian, and Kierkegaard as Negative Theologian, with each commentator usually trying to argue that their classification of Kierkegaard is the best one. Really they are all right because he was all of these things, and all wrong because he wasn’t one of them any more than any of the others! It could be that the situation has become fragmented because in some quarters the commentators overlook the unifying factor of Kierkegaard’s Christian belief: Kierkegaard philosophised, poetised and theologised as a Christian grappling with what it means to become a Christian.[iv] Indeed, the term that he most often preferred for himself was “religious poet”, and that is what he was: a Christian writer who saw it as his religious vocation to create artworks that communicated Christian ideas. For this reason, I have come to like the classification of Scottish Kierkegaard scholar Hugh Pyper, who writes in The Joy of Kierkegaard: “When I am asked what description best sums up Kierkegaard – philosopher, theologian, a kind of poet, novelist, preacher – these days I have an answer: he is an evangelist, in its root meaning as bearer of good news.”[v]
Kierkegaard is useful for thinking about Christian artwork, then, because he spent his life making Christian artwork. How did he go about this? Here is a quick summary of Kierkegaard’s theopoetic practice, which the bulk of my thesis deals with. One of the phrases that Kierkegaard is most famous for is “indirect communication”. This phrase, which is unfortunately vague, is traditionally associated with a series of works that he published under pseudonyms, involving an assortment of other fictional characters, between 1843 and 1846. Many of these are Kierkegaard’s most famous works: Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript are all part of this series. Some things that are interesting about these works are that they do not always contain Kierkegaard’s name, they embody viewpoints and voices that conflict with one another and that often do not identify with Christianity, and they do not aim to impose a didactic, monological, overarching meaning on the reader. And yet Kierkegaard claimed later that they were designed to communicate Christianly, to provoke their readers to existential reflection and to examine themselves in order to see whether they were really Christians, as their nominally Christian nation held.[vi] Now, Kierkegaard did not actually come to use the term “indirect communication” until after he had published a number of these works, and there is a huge debate over whether he was really a “religious author” from the start of his career as he later asserted.[vii] However, in his Journals and published works, he did eventually come to develop something like a theory of “indirect communication”, and these pseudonymous volumes fit the bill for it pretty well: Indirect communication, according to Kierkegaard, only aims to influence its hearers indirectly by trying to entice them to make a choice for themselves about the subject of the communication rather than straightforwardly and directly telling them about it. As a result he wrote that “indirect communication…involves a deception.”[viii] The pseudonymous works, at least up until Concluding Unscientific Postscript, all fit this definition well, by ‘deceptively’ hiding themselves under a veil of pseudonymity, by often presenting contrasting positions, and by avoiding the simple, straightforward thrusting of ideas upon their readers.
But these were not the only books that Kierkegaard produced in his lifetime. Parallel to the main series of pseudonymous works, he also published a number of volumes under his own name, which Michael Strawser calls the ‘veronymous’ works.[ix] Many of these are the Upbuilding Discourses and various other Christian Discourses, the lesser known masterpieces from Kierkegaard’s pen which have been largely neglected by the academic establishment but which a group of scholars have been working hard to re-popularise, including Pattison.[x] As well as having Kierkegaard’s own name written above them, in contrast to the pseudonymous works these discourses are usually presented in one voice and are much more direct in the way that they treat their subject matter and what they refer to as their “listeners”. Headed up by quotations from scripture and often by a “PRAYER” as well, although Kierkegaard insisted that they were not sermons because he did not have the priestly authority to make sermons, they read very much like sermons and the Bishop of Denmark at the time treated them as sermons.[xi] Some of them were actually delivered as sermons in Kierkegaard’s church, although he still preferred to call them “discourses” even then. As such, the veronymous discourses are a much more direct form of communication than the pseudonymous works with their polyphonic clouding of any unified message. And they are equally well literary works of art, as Pattison and his fellow advocates for the discourses have argued, and as anyone who has read Works of Love, Purity of Heart or The Gospel of Sufferings will know.
Of course, at the same time good Kierkegaard scholars point out that even the veronymous discourses are not entirely direct and also contain elements of indirectness.[xii] To do this, among other tactics they often point to passages in the pseudonymous works and Kierkegaard’s Journals where he says that, actually, “direct communication” is impossible when it comes to the communication of ethical-religious ideas. “Direct communication”, while again a plastic term, consists in trying to say something to someone else while naively and ignorantly failing both to acknowledge that the communication will have its own subjective resonances in the recipient and to reflect subjectively on one’s own communication. We read in Practice in Christianity that in the special instance of the God-man, when the communicator is himself a sign of contradiction who can only be understood indirectly, “then all direct communication is impossible.”[xiii] The same applies to communication about the God-man, and Practice in Christianity actually contains some damning passages of direct Christian artwork. Consequently, as I will develop in a moment, we might rather call the different Discourses “direct-indirect communication” because they are more direct in genre than the pseudonymous works and yet still have indirect subject-matter.
However, there is one more major group of published writings to consider. Late in his life, there are hints that Kierkegaard became disillusioned with “indirect communication” and decided to discard it in some way. In 1848 Kierkegaard wrote in his Journals that the “maieutic” or indirect “cannot be the last form…the maieutic teacher must become the witness”[xiv] and in one place in his authorial autobiography The Point of View for My Work as an Author he even confesses that he does not know if the “aesthetic emptying out” of his indirect works is something of which he should be repentant![xv] Probably for these reasons, in 1855 after a long silence Kierkegaard published a series of pamphlets called The Moment, the least studied of his works, which constituted a direct attack on the Danish state church, accusing it of bearing minimal resemblance to New Testament Christianity. These are the most direct of his published works.
Using Kierkegaard then, we might speak of a spectrum of Christian artistic communication that moves from “more direct” to “more indirect”, or perhaps more precisely of two parallel ‘spectra’, as I have decided in conversation with my supervisor Joel: On these spectra, one initial axis has to do with the relative directness or indirectness of the mode of the communication. A second consideration then involves whether the content of the communication is either direct or indirect: Is it an empirical fact about the world or something that can only be apprehended indirectly like the incarnation of the Son of God? This results in a synthesised spectrum ranging from more direct-direct communication on one side to more indirect-indirect communication on the other, with the first modifying term referring to the mode or genre of the communication and the second priority term referring to the content or substance of the communication, with ‘purely direct communication’ and ‘purely indirect communication’ at either extreme. Under this schema, which I am putting forward as my own constructive theopoetic contribution, any given communication can be classified dialectically as more or less “direct-direct”, “indirect-direct”, “direct-indirect” or “indirect-indirect”. As I said above, Kierkegaard makes it very clear in Practice in Christianity, speaking as Anti-Climacus, in his Journals and in his other works that, when Christ is the intended subject of communication, its content is always indirect. This is because Christ is himself a “sign of contradiction” who indirectly represents transcendent divinity; his divinity cannot be directly seen and so communication about it is by necessity indirect.[xvi] So for Kierkegaard, using this terminology, direct-direct communication and indirect-direct communication are impossible for the communication of Christian ideas and there is no point in attempting to use them for this purpose.
In any case, “pure direct communication” is probably impossible anyway, no matter whether the communication is Christian or not, as it is impossible to ever communicate directly about something that is directly understandable in such a way that one can be sure of a perfect transference of sense between the communicator and the recipient of the communication. This is what I take Derrida and the poststructuralists to be saying (perhaps over and over again because they need to say it as many times as possible in order to maximise the chances of their readers grasping what they have said!). The closest one could get to pure direct communication might be saying something like “1 + 1 = 2”, but even then numbers and mathematical symbols belong to a system of signs that must be learned and the meaning of which is always open to ‘mistaken’ interpretation. However, note that a statement such as “nominal, cultural Christendom is very different from New Testament Christianity” is on the face of it a piece of “direct-direct communication”, though not pure direct communication: it involves saying something straightforwardly about a straightforward empirical fact. Of course, one of Derrida’s insights (I take it) is that even this mode of communication isn’t completely direct, because meaning is always ultimately indeterminate and we can never ‘break the mirror of representation’ to get behind to the direct “sense” of a given communication. However, though in many ways he anticipated the thought of poststructuralism and in some places he gives clues that maybe all communication about anything is indirect to a certain degree,[xvii] Kierkegaard was not a 21st century poststrutcturalist and “direct-direct communication” can still serve as a good placeholder for classifying some of his communication, particularly parts of the Moment writings about the state church.
The next type of communication on the synthesised spectrum is “indirect-direct communication”. This is the strangest type of communication, the kind that Kierkegaard was least interested in and the only kind of communication that he does not mention explicitly. Indirect-direct communication, remembering my schema, involves speaking about something indirectly that is a direct empirical fact about the world and not an inherently paradoxical idea like the incarnation. An example of an indirect-direct communication might be telling a story with multiple interpretative options in order to get hearers to reflect on the idea that “1 + 1 = 2”, or presenting a person with a picture that looks like two different things at the same time and saying “Here’s a picture. It might be a cup or it might be two faces: You decide.” Arguably, this is what Derrida et al are saying all ordinary communication and writing actually ends up being, because it is impossible to speak purely directly about facts in the world, so really all saying is indirect in mode. But as I say, Kierkegaard is not really interested in this kind of communication so much, except possibly for when he uses indirect means to try to get his readers to reflect on contingent truths, as again at times in The Moment.
This brings us to direct-indirect communication. Direct-indirect communication involves saying something in a more direct manner about truths that are not directly apprehensible. An example of this is preaching. When Jesus says “Believe in me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me,” he is speaking directly-indirectly, under this schema, though this is a special instance that involves the paradoxical God-man communicating about himself. But equally well, when a Christian says “Jesus is the Son of God, believe in him and be saved,” in church, in public or through a Christian artwork, then direct-indirect communication is happening. Kierkegaard did actually use the term “direct-indirect communication” himself when he was trying to write a series of lectures on communication in his Journals, and it appears that this came to be his preferred term for ethical-religious communication.[xviii] For the purposes of my theopoetic schema, direct-indirect communication includes Christian artworks that aim to present something of a Christian message more directly than through an open-ended narrative, perhaps by including elements of preaching or simply through being an artistic rendering of a gospel message. Kierkegaard’s own Discourses and once again parts of The Moment come under this category, I would argue.
Lastly, we land on indirect-indirect communication. Indirect-indirect communication is saying something in an indirect manner about something that can only be apprehended indirectly, such as a theological fact about God, the incarnation, or salvation. An example of indirect-indirect communication might be the following:
There once was a father who had two sons. One left him and squandered his inheritance, the other remained with him and tried to earn his love. One day the first son returned, and the father ran out to meet him and welcomed him back with open arms. The second son was bitter about this, but the father told him that he loved him just as much, regardless of his attempts to earn it.
This, after all, is a little artwork that arguably aims to communicate Christian ideas, but is open-ended and can be interpreted in different ways. The majority of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous writings come under this “indirect-indirect” classification, particularly Either/Or, Stages on Life’s Way and Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Note that when Jesus presents his indirect-indirect parables in the gospels, to them is usually appended a small piece of direct-indirect communication: “the Kingdom of God is like…”[xix] Arguably this is what Kierkegaard needed in order to make his communication Christian too in the form of the more direct Upbuilding Discourses and meta-texts that comment on his authorship. At the extreme of the spectrum, “pure indirect communication” involves speaking in such a way that one guarantees that no meaning at all is transferred, perhaps by saying something like “supercalifragilisticexpiadlidocious” or, more properly, simply spouting incomprehensible nonsense, as some accuse Derrida of doing.
But what does any of this mean for the contemporary Christian artist or theopoet? To cut a long story short, imagine (if you need to) that you are a Christian, an adherent of the Christian faith. Also imagine (if you need to) that you are an artist, that you have decided that you would like to engage yourself in the activity of making creative artwork, potentially even to sell or publish or distribute. If you are the kind of Christian who believes that their faith should affect and be relevant to every other dimension of their life, you will want to think through how your faith could and should influence your artwork, what regulative principles and purpose the one can lend to the other. Since in a traditional, conservative Christian faith, one of the highest callings or activities a believer can engage in is sharing or communicating that faith in Christ with others, both as a genuine consequence of believing and because this is what Christ commands in the scriptures, you might very well ask ‘Can the making of artwork serve to communicate a Christian message, and if so, how?’ Kierkegaard is extremely helpful for thinking through this question. This is because, as I have shown, at different points in his life he adopted virtually every position that it is possible to adopt on the spectrum of opinion regarding this question: To begin with, he simply gets on with it, without reflecting on the question too much, and for some the school of thought will be that one has to simply ‘get on with it’ and just create however you happen to create. At other times, he believes that his artwork can consciously communicate a Christian message, but ‘indirectly’, not by being overtly, avowedly or directly religious but by working within a non-religious genre to ‘deceive’ people into the religious and cause them to reflect on their own existential situation by “meeting them where they are” (his language not mine), aiming to ‘be a midwife’ to belief through a kind of covert infiltration of the non-religious sphere.[xx] At other times, Kierkegaard believes that his artwork can consciously communicate the Christian message by way of more direct, explicit, overtly religious address, indeed for a long time this method ran parallel to his indirect method, though towards the end of his life he seemed to privilege this approach exclusively.
Correspondingly, for some the school of thought will be that a Christian message can be consciously communicated and that the best way to do this is without being explicitly religious, but rather by infiltrating the realm of secular art and indirectly gesturing towards the religious by working within it on its own terms. And similarly, for some the school of thought will be that the way to communicate the Christian message through artwork is to make more direct, explicitly religious artwork that straightforwardly and overtly puts across the Christian message. As a result, wherever a person falls on the spectrum, it is possible for them to identify with Kierkegaard at a certain point in his career, and he makes for an excellent foil and conversation-partner for thinking about this area.
The question I am most interested in asking in relation to all this is: By what means can we evaluate which approach to communication is be preferred by the Christian artist? In other words, is it possible to construct a Christian ethic in order to regulate this communicative aesthetic? My argument, summarised massively here, is that insofar as Christian scripture is taken as normative for a traditional or conservative theological Christian ethic, as it was for Kierkegaard, the following is true: (1) Direct-indirect and indirect-indirect communication are the two kinds of communication that are most useful to the Christian theopoet. (2) Of these, direct-indirect communication is more valuable to the Christian theopoet than indirect-indirect communication. (3) At the same time, indirect-indirect communication can still be valuable when used in conjunction with direct-indirect communication. I conclude these things for the following reasons: Firstly, scripture itself exhibits both indirect and direct communicative genres, though its proper subject(s) can only be apprehended indirectly, so if scripture is being allowed to set the communicative agenda then both must be affirmed. For example, the bulk of the Old Testament is narrative and poetry, full of indirect mimetic examples, metaphors and contrasting points of view, while other parts of scripture are more didactic, imperative and overtly direct(ive).
Secondly and most importantly, Christ himself, who is taken as the prototypical mimetic example par excellence by Kierkegaard and by traditional Christians, used both these forms of communication, as I outlined above. However, if we only had remaining record of Christ’s indirect-indirect communication, for example his parables left un-interpreted to any degree, then the Christian message would not have survived in anything like its traditional form. It would have lost its strong, more direct-indirect content about Jesus being the Son of God, the inauguration of his Kingdom, and so on. Thirdly, the early Christians as documented in the rest of the New Testament used both these forms of communication too, again with what seems to me an overall preference for direct-indirect communication. The paradigmatic passage here for exhorting direct-indirect communication is perhaps Romans 10:14-15:
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
Similarly, the paradigmatic passage for indirect-indirect communication might be Paul’s appropriation of a Greek cultural motif in Athens as portrayed by Luke in Acts 17:22-23:
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship
But note that Paul goes on to say “—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.” While the more indirect-indirect method of appropriating cultural motifs in order to “meet people where they are” is valuable, it only works as a complement to more direct-indirect communication. Hence my conclusion, based on a traditional Christian and a Kierkegaardian scriptural hermeneutic, that for the Christian theopoet both direct-indirect and indirect-indirect communication are valuable, but direct-indirect communication is more valuable.
Very briefly, allow me to concretise these abstract types by trying to present some different contemporary examples of the different forms of communication. My doing so will serve as a reminder that I am very much speaking on a spectrum here and that artworks cannot be shoved into these types crudely or simplistically. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien have both featured in this seminar series. For me, C.S. Lewis is an example of a more direct-indirect writer. Narnia, the space trilogy, and The Great Divorce are all stories or myths, but they are all stories or myths that contain directly allegorical elements, including in one case a stark and self-conscious allegory for the Christian doctrine of the atonement, as in Aslan’s sacrificial death to save Edmund and subsequent resurrection in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. This is much more direct than The Lord of the Rings, where the specifically Christian influences are far less obvious and explicit. Other more recent examples of this more direct-indirect approach could be Philip Pullman with His Dark Materials, an atheopoet who has his characters assassinate “the Authority” and speak of building “the Republic of Heaven”. Another back in Christianity could be Alister McGrath. McGrath is very well known for his academic work, but you may not know that he has also recently published some children’s fiction by the name of The Aedyn Chronicles, in direct emulation of Lewis and of his more direct-indirect approach, a ripping set of yarns that sees its protagonists battling dark forces in another world in the service of a being called “the Lord of Hosts”.
At the other, more indirect-indirect end of the theopoetic scale, I have already mentioned the Lord of the Rings, the world of which was deeply informed by Tolkien’s theology, but in a way that is much less overt than in Lewis, Pullman or McGrath. Another authorial candidate might be Kierkegaard’s near-contemporary, Fyodor Dostoevsky, particularly in his last and greatest novel The Brothers Karamazov. In this work, Dostoevsky puts the case for atheist aestheticism and the case for Christianity very strongly against one another, without imposing any final monological resolution on the narrative, in a way that is very similar to Either/Or and Stages on Life’s Way. Two other indirect-indirect theopoetic candidates, though I can’t comment as much on them as I haven’t read all of their work, might be the under-discovered but critically acclaimed fantasy writer Gene Wolfe with his theologically-undergirded The Book of the New Sun trilogy, and Marilynne Robinson with Home, Gilead and Lilah, indirectly showing what patterns of Christian life can look like in the modern world. If my theopoetic theory is correct, then books like Narnia and McGrath’s Aedyn Chronicles are more valuable for communicating the Christian message, though books like The Brothers Karamazov and Lilah can still be valuable too.
A couple of final thoughts to close: Firstly, of course for Kierkegaard, the New Testament authors, and the traditional Christian, existential appropriation of Christ’s teaching in one’s ordinary life is much more important than theopoetic mythmaking, which should not be their primary preoccupation. As Pattison paraphrases Kierkegaard as saying, really after reading his works he wants us to “Throw away the book and plunge into existence!”[xxi] At the same time, I want to argue that theopoetic mythmaking can still be a valid occupation for the traditional Christian within a life that prioritises existential imitation of Christ, for those who are called to it. The precedents here are Kierkegaard himself, who although he was honest about his own existential shortcomings did nonetheless see his authorship as a kind of “worship” and “service to Christianity”,[xxii] and, naturally, Christ himself, who both told more indirect-indirect parables and preached more direct-indirect messages. Granted, this does mean that the lines between preaching and artwork can get blurred somewhat. But preaching [Greek: kerusso] does not have to be a dirty word. Some of the best and most popular direct-indirect Christian works of art contain elements of preaching, such as Aslan’s various discourses in Narnia, or are even sermonic in form, such as Kierkegaard’s Upbuilding Discourses. Equally, the best Christian sermons are works of art. Perhaps the best form of Christian direct-indirect communication is public preaching, not literary (or another kind of) artwork, but that does not make direct-indirect Christian “artwork” obsolete. Ideally, those who are called to be Christian theopoets will make direct-indirect and indirect-indirect works of art, and preach the good news publicly, actualising the Christian ideal in their own lives.
Secondly and lastly, a question that we have been asked at points throughout this seminar is “What is the source of the power of myths?” In particular, I would like to suggest a provisional answer to the question “What is the source of the power of Christian myths?” Whatever our opinion of them, The Lord of the Rings and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, with their deeply Christian influences, are among the most successful and popular works of world literature, with the former being the most sold fiction book of all time with sales of around over 150 million and the latter clocking in at around no. 8 with sales of around 85 million. In my opinion, myths in general and these myths in particular are powerful because they draw their appeal from the greatest myth of all, the one True Myth, the Christian Story. According to Christianity, we are all chosen, as children of distinction, to take part in a battle between good and evil, in which we have a unique part to play, with talents and supernatural gifts to utilise, supported by a familial community, in order to participate in a final victory. All appealing myths reflect these tropes to some degree, and the better the reflection, the more appealing the myth. That after all is also the basic plot of Narnia, Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Legend of Zelda, the Final Fantasy series, The Hobbit and of course The Lord of the Rings, as well as almost every other successful modern mythology you could think of. In Tolkien’s words, myths, or “fairy stories” are powerful because they give us a reflected glimpse of “evangelium” or the gospel of Christ, which he calls “Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief”.[xxiii] In conclusion: Are you a Christian artist? Then work to communicate this good news, say Kierkegaard and I, through direct-indirect means, through indirect-indirect means, and through the existential imitation of Christ in your own everyday life.
[i] Theopoetic Folds: Philosophising Mutifariousness, ed. Roland Faber and Jeremy Fackenthal (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), chapter by Sam Laurent.
[ii] Ibid., p. 47.
[iii] Sylvia Walsh, Living Poetically: Kierkegaard’s Existential Aesthetics (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1995), p. 235
[iv] See Kierkegaard, The Point of View (Princeton: PUP, 2009) pp. 8, 31.
[v] Hugh Pyper, The Joy of Kierkegaard, (London: Equinox, 2011), p. 1.
[vi] See e.g. Kierkegaard, The Point of View, pp. 41-44.
[vii] See e.g. ibid., pp. 33f.
[viii] Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers, Danish reference: Pap. VIII 2 B 81, c.1847.
[ix] See Michael Strawser, Both/And: From Irony to Edification (New York: Fordham University Press, 1997).
[x] See Pattison, Kierkegaard’s Upbuilding Discourses (London: Routledge, 2002).
[xi] See Pattison, ‘The Art of Upbuilding’ in International Kierkegaard Commentary on Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, (Macon, Ga: Mercer University Press, 2003), p. 77.
[xii] See Stephen Shakespeare, ‘A Word of Explanation: Transfiguring Language in Kierkegaard’s ‘Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses’’ in IKC:18UD, p. 92; Pattison, ‘Upbuilding’, p. 88; Robert Perkins, IKC:18UD, p. 3; Joseph Westfall, The Kierkegaardian Author (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2007), p. 3; Pattison Kierkegaard’s Upbuilding Discourses, (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 2.
[xiii] Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity (Princeton: PUP, 1991), p. 123.
[xiv] Pap. IX A 221, 1848.
[xv] Kierkegaard, The Point of View, p. 88.
[xvi] See e.g. Kierkegaard, Practice, pp. 123-5.
[xvii] Pap. VIII 2 B 81, 1847.
[xviii] Pap. VIII 2 B 89, 1847.
[xix] See e.g. Mark 4:26.
[xx] Kierkegaard, The Point of View, pp. 44-45.
[xxi] Pattison, Kierkegaard, Religion, and the Nineteenth Century Crisis of Culture (Cambridge: CUP, 2002), p. 223.
[xxii] Kierkegaard, The Point of View, pp. 73, 24
[xxiii] J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories, in Tree and Leaf (London: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 69.