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Originality and Religious Criticism at the Present Time

religion and the arts

Editor's Introduction
Dennis Taylor

One of the most haunting biblical parables for artists and writers is the parable of the talents, explored in this issue by Leslie Brisman. We may live in a post-Christian age as is sometimes supposed, but this parable haunts Western consciousness with its implacable demands. The demand for originality and its expression is one of our chief values, even though our critical tradition has recently done all it can to undo the claims of originality. Some would say that this represents criticism trying to be more original than the art it describes. The classic way of posing the problem of originality is by expressing it as "Tradition and the Individual Talent," the problem of the original artist working within a tradition and yet modifying it in more or less original ways. In our postmodern time, we seem to have snapped the silver cord between tradition and originality, sometimes by making tradition the Oedipal father that the artist struggles to overthrow, sometimes by exploding tradition into deconstructive shards forestalling any new art work. The most intimidating and deconstructed tradition for Western artists is the biblical tradition. One of the functions of religious criticism in our time is simply to resee the forgotten giant in our midst, to explore the intricacies of the biblical tradition as one of a number of powerful religious traditions which have influenced the world of art.

Brisman demonstrates how the biblical parable of the talents itself struggles with the question of its own originality: the responsibility of being original and the danger of being original. The third servant, the slothful one, is blamed for failing to multiply his single talent. For Brisman, the single talent in one interpretation is an orthodox tradition which the third servant is charged to "develop." He is in a terrible dilemma: to develop and perhaps lose or distort the tradition, or to leave it a dead letter. The third servant is like the religious critic in our time, not knowing how to turn the tradition into a new language, fearing its distortion yet not wanting to leave it a dead letter. And all the while there is the promise of a profitable investment which leads to new responsibility and "joy."

Though the parable haunts our consciousness, many of its terms have lost meaning in our modern culture: the joy of the Lord, the kingdom of heaven, being a good and faithful servant, the wickedness of the slothful servant, the wailing and gnashing of teeth. We might read the parable as we read Eliot's "The Waste Land," full of glass fragments of an old culture which have become increasingly blurred. Yet despite its alienness, the parable has a strange analogy to secular concerns. We know that originality increases manifold, while the unoriginal labor in darkness. We connect originality if not with salvation, then with success and promotion. And we also know that originality soon fails, that it takes shape in forms which can grow fixed and sterile. The parable still has the capacity to terrify us. Yet it also may console. One of the interesting turns in Brisman's argument is that the third servant is the most loved, and indeed is rather like the Mary who (unlike Martha) does not do profitable work, the Milton who only 'waits', the Cordelia who does not speak pretentiously. The third servant is the chosen people, whether Jewish or Gentile. And if we are called to an impossible task, to make profit out of a single old coin, we are entitled to some compassion for the fix we are in.

One project of Religion and the Arts is to show how our religious and secular cultures struggle with similar problems. There is an intricacy in the parable, an historical and psychological intricacy, which is like the intricacy we would like to explore in non-biblical art and literature. The one coin which Religion and the Arts seeks to invest is that of ecumenical dialogue between religion and the arts, so that each may be invigorated by the other. In various ways, the articles in this issue explore the inter-sections created by original thinking sensitive to the danger and the joy of such thinking.

The intersections between the religious and the secular have a way of changing both. Rosemary Luling Haughton's idea of the "sacrament," for example, brings together two things, the way in which Jasper Johns's art creates a new way of experiencing material representations, and the way in which a religious "sacrament" creates a material moment which reshapes people, material, and their God into a new reality. The parallel here between art and sacrament is challenging to conventional notions of how symbols work in both religion and art. Both conventions are challenged, with the result that both are invigorated. Haughton's is in the circle of that school of critics meditating anew upon material objects, bodies in space, the matter of our minds. We come out of a heritage of fierce debates in the religious tradition about idolatry, superstition, Baal-worship, voodoo objects; and equally fierce debates in the philosophical tradition about materialism and behaviorism. These debates have become tired and left us fascinated in the religious world with the power of "icons" and in the secular world with the power of material objects. How do objects, material objects in our experience, our own bodies, the bodies of others, the body of the world, enter into and become part of what we might consider religious and spiritual experience?

Thus John Renard is at once a comparativist and materialist of objects. He reminds us that a major way in which one religious tradition understands itself is by understanding others. And one way in which religious traditions are importantly embodied is in architecture which with other visual arts have had arguably greater influence on the multitude of religious people than written texts. Renard carefully tracks the experience which one has in entering a religious building, the stages and significance of this experience, and the complex material parts to which one should attend.

In Religion and the Arts, we seek to trace the complex encounter of the bodily and the spiritual, the sexual and the transcendent, an encounter needed if the reality of either side is to be seen. Warhol is thus a classic case, the mocker of objects, the worshipper of objects, the supreme parodist whose way to the religious is through the parodied; and when we finally arrive at the religious with Warhol, we are as entranced (if we are still with him) with the theological drama as any Renaissance Christian who first gazed upon Leonardo's Last Supper. Warhol's second innocence, like Blake's organized innocence, or Kierkegaard's faith, is a model of a contemplation raised to a second power. Out of the exhaustion of a fully experienced and thus parodied world, Warhol arrives at the altar rail. Which is not to say that he is not still excluded, marginalized, and condemned by the religion he loved, but that he found it interesting. One hope of Religion and the Arts is to help make the subject of religion interesting in our contemporary culture.

In future issues, we plan to continue to develop features that will serve the field of religion and the arts: from interviews to forums, from bibliographical resources to review essays. But always we hope to be the place where the best critical articles in each of the arts can be found.