f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 4 of <em>Asher Lev</em> - Mere Faith

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Day 4 of Asher Lev - Mere Faith

My senior year in college I was activities director for my college fellowship group. Part of my responsibilities was to organize a fall retreat. Life at this time was hectic. I was buried in my senior thesis, was supposed to be studying for the GRE’s, and had all the details of the retreat to work out as well. So it makes perfect sense that I should write a very short play (skit, really) in the midst of all this.

The point of this play was cribbed largely, if not entirely, from one Clive Staples Lewis. At its core was the notion that we should not let “Christian” become a modifier for something else. We are not Christian Republicans or Christian editors or Christian feminists. Faith demands that we be Christians first, foremost, and only. Mere Christianity. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

And for a good deal of us, a good deal of the time, that makes a lot of sense.

But then you place it against something that seems to make the same demands of primacy and we have a battle. We begin to use words like “idol” or “false gods.”

Art, I think, can play that role. I think it strongly plays that role in Asher Lev. The Rebbe thinks he’s pointing Asher down the path to being a Ladover Artist. There is no such path, however. Asher is torn between the demands of his art and the demands of his religious tradition (not his faith, however, which is a different thing.) And what becomes of him? Let’s look at the book’s first page.

I am an observant Jew. Yes, of course, observant Jews do not paint crucifixions. As a matter of fact, observant Jews do not paint at all—in the way that I am painting.
Look at that contradiction. “I am this. I can’t be this.” It’s like the Magritte painting, Ceci n’est pas un pipe. He goes on.
So strong words are being written and spoken about me, myths are being generated: I am a traitors, an apostate, a self-hater, an inflicter of shame upon my family, my friends, my people; also, I am a mocker of ideas sacred to Christians, a blasphemous manipulator of modes and forms revered by Gentiles for two thousand years.
Well, I am none of those things. And yet, in all honesty, I confess that my accusers are not altogether wrong: I am indeed, in some way, all of those things.”

One definition of art, I think, is “truth communicated.” So, it’s sets itself up as a quest for truth, which I hope we agree is noble and not, in and of itself sinful. As Christians, we trust that God is truth. So, in essence, there really should be no problem. It’s a syllogism. ARTISTS want to talk about TRUTH. GOD is TRUTH. Therefore, ARTISTS want to talk about GOD. And they do so and sign a big contract with WestBow publishing and everybody is happy.

But that’s not the case, right? In our fallenness, we’ve no longer got a collective sense of truth. Instead, we’re isolated, each seeking God on our own, relying on each other as best we can to help parse out what all the big questions mean. Theologians come up with answers, answers make it into creeds and liturgy, these things define denominations, and suddenly you have a rule book OUTSIDE of God’s word. The pages nailed to a door in Wittenburg were all well and good, but in the end they are not what we’ve taken to be Canon. (Even the Canon itself gets scrutinized but that’s a ball of wax best left to seminaries.)

Anyway, what then is the artists role in this?

Asher saw his role as being to “communicate truth.” To “show the pain in the world.” In pursuing the truth about the anguish his mother felt at her family, he turned to the most representative anguish in the world—the crucifixion. There is no contextual salvific meaning in the cross—only sacrifice and pain. He turns to is for its “passion” in the Mel-Gibson sense of the word. He is not telling a story. He is trying to crystallize a moment of anguish.

Yet in doing so he challenges the very foundation of his religion. Now, we know the Bible. There isn’t much in there about not painting. Much of the Judaic tradition is extrapolated and/or expanded. That is “religion,” which as we’ve seen through the centuries may or may not be “truth.”

He still considers himself an Orthodox Jew. That is his faith. But others don’t anymore. In the end, he is left only with his charge from God to continue on. A charge, it appears, that has more weight than any years of tradition.

Go to Day 5 of Asher Lev.