Many thanks to my friend (and partner in crime), Carrie Givens, for wrapping up our reading of Breath for the Bones by Luci Shaw. Carolyn Clare Givens works in Communications at Church at Charlotte in North Carolina and does freelance writing and editing. A displaced Northerner now exploring the foreign ways of the south, she has previously bumped around the world, both as a missionary kid and as an adult. She revels in good stories, good music, and wrestles with the intersection of faith, art, vocation, and culture. Online, she hangs out at her website, carolyncgivens.com, on Twitter, and at her page on Facebook.
I once had a haphazard, twenty-minute lesson in orienteering. I’d never seen an orienteering compass, so I asked my friend Ben to show me how it worked. He began to demonstrate, lifting the compass to eye level, finding a mountain peak through the trees, and turning the map into alignment.
One of my pastors, Dave Huber, was recently teaching about the concept of wisdom in Scripture. He noted that the Bible doesn’t give us a map for life, but rather teaches us the fixed points of truth and trusts us to navigate life based on them.
As I stood in the woods with Ben and the orienteering compass, I quickly learned the value of fixed points. Three more steps to the left and we wouldn’t have been able to see that mountain peak. Without that fixed point, it would have been easy to be overwhelmed by the darkness of the trees, the confusing paths between them. Even with our map, without the fixed points, we may not have been able to find our way home.
Walking through life, there have been plenty of moments when I’ve been more surrounded by the trees than in sight of the fixed points of truth. Sometimes God, and His truth, seems invisible. Luci Shaw, in her book Breath for the Bones, writes of this feeling:
The God who is not there. Or, the God who is there but not here, except for occasional momentary visitations. I have often felt, in reflective moments as well as at the raw edge of experience, that I have a now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t God, a chiaroscuro God, some of whose features are highlighted in the manner of the Italian renaissance painters who employed that technique, but whose being exhibits such mystery, such inscrutability, such otherness, that it can only be represented by deep shadow, which might as well signify absence as obscurity, it is so unknowable. (p. 151)
It often feels that we have more shadows than light in our story. We wander in the woods with the lengthening darkness and we cannot glimpse the mountains.
In Breath for the Bones, Shaw speaks of the role of art in these times, and of the difficulty Christians often encounter when faced with the shadows. Not only is there the tension of authenticity—presenting through our art the struggles as well as the joys and peace of life—but as Christians, we strive to speak truth in our art. Unfortunately, as Shaw points out, truth isn’t always perfectly clear, nor is it always pleasant to face. She writes,
Christians who practice art must not always feel bound to produce sweetness and light. We have to recognize the darkness and shadow as well as the light, and realize that God allows shadows into our lives. God is not dark and evil, but he embodies mystery. (p. 161)
She goes on to say that the contrast between darkness and light is valuable—for you cannot see one without the other. “Contrast highlights, as it were; it allows meaning to be seen and experienced” (p. 161). The part of the journey lost among the trees may be dark and frightening, but we would not fully understand what it means to be lost unless we also had some understanding of having the fixed point in our sights and navigating toward it. But to get through the trees, we must sometimes walk through areas where we cannot see the mountain peak. And to do so, to step onto the confusing paths among the trees and away from the glimpse of alpenglow, requires a certain faith. “All mystery feels like a fog,” Shaw writes. “It presents hiddenness. It demands strong faith to walk into it believing that one day it will be demystified” (p. 162).
And this, I think, is the moment where the Christian artist comes into his own. I had a professor who used to say, “The writer is the one who points and says, ‘See.’” She knew the power of art to help navigate the darkness. It’s a wild and dangerous profession, one that the artist shares with the men and women through the ages whom God called to speak the truth. To do so, He asked them to lay on their side for a year, to marry a whore, to be sawn in two. It’s never been an easy life. “Christian poets stand with the seer and prophet,” says Shaw, “one foot in heaven, one on earth, perpetually torn by that duality of focus as the divine dream is channeled through their human voice or pen” (p. 164). We glimpse the light on the mountaintop and we point to it as we walk through the darkness.
Another pastor at my church, Jim Kallam, spoke recently about the final words of Jesus in Scripture—not His words to His disciples before He ascended, but His words in the twenty-second chapter of Revelation. Jesus describes Himself one final time in that chapter, saying, “I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star” (Rev. 22:17 ESV). Jimmy said, “The morning star appears in the night sky when the night has reached its greatest degree of darkness…and what that signifies simply to me is this: though it may still be dark, it will never again be totally dark.”
Andy Gullahorn, in his song “Grand Canyon,” sings,
I can’t sleep
There’s too much weighing on my mind
But there’s a bird out there
Still singing in the dead of night
Like it knows there’s a season
when the sun’s gonna set
But the story isn’t over yet
The artist, the poet, the writer is the one who points and says “See.” The faithful artist is the one who navigates the dark, shadowy mystery by the Bright Morning Star, and is singing with the bird in the dead of night, saying that though we can’t see them through the trees, the mountaintops are still there, awaiting our approach to a break in the branches when we can lift up our orienteering compass to eye level and continue to find our way forward.
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This post was written in response to reading Breath for the Bones by Luci Shaw. You can catch up here: