Editor’s note: In publishing our 52 Weeks of Making blog, CIVA member posts have spanned a spectrum of topics, genres, and opinions. From the beginning of this project, it has been our intent to encourage more voices in our CIVA community to speak up, allowing the rest of us a chance to hear them. What follows is a well-considered essay by CIVA artist and Board member Kevin Hamilton. Regardless of one’s own views on the topic, we encourage our readers to engage this essay with the same care and thoughtfulness with which it was written. And feel free to respond, if led, by posting your comments below.
By Kevin Hamilton
If you are looking to art (or to this blog) for a retreat or a refuge from the wars currently taking place, I won’t be offering one. And I would beg you to consider why you would even want one—especially if you’ve landed here because of an interest in the Christian faith.
The planet is as mired in war as it has ever been in my lifetime, with wars looming closer to home all the time. After years of growing surveillance, illegal wars, mass incarceration, and a shift of power toward the executive branch, this nation has now elected a lying, race-baiting television celebrity to the highest office in the land. Americans now face a renewed prospect of a nuclear arms race, an ever-weakening moral standing in mediating international conflicts, dramatic disinvestment in preparation for impending climate change, and a near total loss of truth as a basis for shared civic debate. Our president’s closest advisor is a demonstrable white nationalist. And in the midst of this, the church is as divided as I’ve ever seen it, with gaps ever-widening in the wake of the election.
So now is probably as good a time as ever to revisit a sermon that has held great influence in Christianity and art conversations over the years—C.S. Lewis’ “Learning in War-Time.”
This sermon, delivered at Oxford by the famous author late in 1939, has often emerged over the years as a way of helping argue for the value of making. Many have found solace and life-changing affirmation in this text—especially those artists of faith who were wrongly chastened by their brothers and sisters that art might not present as worthy a vocation as the saving of souls.
I was one of those people, many years ago, which is part of what drew me to CIVA. In texts like the Lewis sermon, I found a basis for the value of making as good in and of itself. Art and making might be usefully described, in Lewis’ words, as “the pursuit of knowledge and beauty, in a sense, for their own sake, but in a sense which does not exclude their being for God’s sake.”
Reading this Lewis’ text again today, it feels vastly incomplete, as colored and dated by empire as his Narnia series was for me when I read it to my kids not long ago. I am chastened by how much I took from his argument, which appears now as limited by his own distance from the poor and vulnerable, where God lives.
Lewis rightly cautions his audience that war “is a finite object, and therefore intrinsically unfitted to support the whole attention of a human soul.” He names three enemies of the scholar (or, by extension, artist) brought on by war: excitement (distraction), frustration (futility), and fear. Lewis rightly notes that sometimes war appropriately reminds us that no man will build an eternal heaven on earth.
But, for heaven’s sake, as Lewis was delivering this sermon, Jews were losing what little legal status they had in Poland and Eastern Europe, and Germany’s leaders were making plans for the concentration camps. Even with the unprecedented and brutal horrors of World War I, could Lewis have imagined, in 1939, the horrors a modern state might be capable of?
We should read Lewis’ sermon as an argument for why a group of young men privileged enough to have secured an opportunity to study at Oxford should stay in school during a time when Britain was just starting to get involved in a new European war. I just don’t see any fitting application of this text beyond that context. In fact, I fear it may invite dangerous dichotomies to which I’m afraid conversations about Christianity and art are all too prone.
I reject Lewis’ choice between learning and war, the same as I reject a choice between art and politics. One doesn’t simply “learn,” but learns certain things. Not all wars are the same, either. The relative value of possible vocations has more to do with the object of our actions, and not the actions themselves. Following Lewis and others, many an artist of faith who had faced denigration of their talents in the face of errant pietism or Manicheism found freedom from the need to justify their work. But if we are freed from, what are we freed to?
A choice between learning and war, between art and politics, between “making” as an inherent good and “making” as necessarily in the service of something else could also never be solely an individual decision. Just as I’m less and less certain that it means anything to say that I, on my own, feel closer to or farther from God, I am less and less certain that one person on her own can draw nearer to beauty. We know the divine together, and we know beauty together. If one of us is suffering I don’t know how we can call something beautiful together. As it emerges among our cohort that we may be facing beauty together, we should immediately ask, “Who is missing?” for we probably have not made our cohort wide enough.
Making on its own is not enough. I’ll say this to the marketers of Apple and Adobe products who persistently coax me to make new aesthetic experiences as a way of realizing my own individuality. And I’ll say this to the artist who turns to aesthetics as an escape from the world’s current ugliness.
We do have decisions to make, but they are not between learning and war. We need to decide whether we are going to be on the side of those enamored of their own (false) beauty, and therefore content with the confines of their cohort, or on the side of those who are ever in search of beauty, and do so by reaching out to those who are not present because of suffering or oppression. This is the choice we face who still have the freedom to choose. It is also the choice of the rich man who wishes to enter the kingdom of God.
There is no way out of this choice. If you choose wrongly, your pursuit of beauty will be fruitless and hollow. And if you choose rightly, the struggle will only increase. Just ask all the faithful people of color who have gone before, leaving objects of beauty in their wake that this rich, white artist could never dream of matching.
Kevin Hamilton is a CIVA Board Member and artist who primarily works as a scholar and administrator in higher education. In 2013 he co-organized the annual CIVA conference on the theme of Art and Justice. He lives in Urbana, Illinois.