by Xenia Williams
One can say culture in and of itself is both a cognitive and embodied depository of ideas and behaviors based on a moral understanding of existence. By extension, societies and civilizations are the cultivated results of morals which can be considered the backbone of their cultures, whether they are revelatory in origin or merely positivistic or constructivist in origin.
Whether culture is cultivated as the result of a revelatory phenomenon or as a positivistic or constructivist phenomenon, it still requires participation. This participation is bodily, mentally, and spiritually. In all of this, there is a buy-in – a consent of the people who participate because of some perceived collective or individual benefit. But what is the backbone of morals? Is there an ontological underpinning of our morals that indicate a purpose of our being? Do morals in and of themselves indicate a purpose of being? From whence are morals? And what does art have to do with it?
As a young student at Evergreen State College, I read “The Myth of the Eternal Return” by Mircea Eliade while also reading theories on the origin of the Judeo-Christian cultures. Prior to that, I had read Leonard Woolley’s “The Sumerians” and was fascinated that the Sumerian kingship lineage included Enoch. When I was very young if I had a spiritual existential question, I would reflect on the sermons of the Pastor Rev. Elderidge Gittens or would read the Bible. If I didn’t understand something, I would just file it away until an opportunity came where I would understand it. These were private ruminations which I never discussed with anyone except God in prayer. It was at Evergreen where I realized the idea that the Judeo-Christian culture in its purest form is the oldest, persistent and unadulterated culture in Earth’s history. The sense of awe this created was a germinal development in my journey to becoming a Christian. I say journey because later in life I had my “meeting Jesus again for the first time” moment when I encountered the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church. This was a “meeting again” because at the age of fourteen I decided to reject everything I knew about God and try to find Him on His terms and not on any terms filtered by homo sapiens. And as a teenager, I did not consider myself homo-sapien but rather a primate. I was not the first human to reject God. Isn’t this what Cain did?
How is it that God reveals himself to mankind? By intervening in the cultures of fallen man, choosing those who are able to accept Him as He truly is? We see this with Noah, with Abraham, then with Mary the Theotokos. Out of these encounters, a culture based on a Promise develops that is complete with a persistent lineage and continues to preach the Good News even today. And like the cultures which produce art signifying the ideas of epistemological systems, which in turn seek to replace the revelatory knowledge systems of the Uncreated God, there is the art of the faithful, consisting of professional and folk art as well as the utilitarian art of the vessels which hold the Divine Sacraments that serve to facilitate the pouring out of that medicinal grace which works to heal the soul, and by extension, the culture, into a wholistic Image of God. And what would be the purpose of such a divinely inspired art that flourishes in a divinely inspired culture such as this? It is twofold, and it is simple:
1. To provide an image of the heavenly courts of the Lord whereby the person can regularly encounter God in an awe-inspiring sacred manner, and whereby the experience of this divine encounter encourages that the whole person participates in the Divine Worship, and…
2. To proclaim the Good News of God’s intervention personally and collectively in our lives and cultures in order to save mankind from their sins and thus reconcile them to Himself.
If we understand Culture from this morally purposeful perspective, then the work of healing our culture would bring down profound grace from on High. For sacred art elevates us to think of God, while sacred culture preserves the knowledge of God. And derived from these two objectives, the Christian artist’s cultural work (as we all know) is to glorify God’s presence amongst us in both the sacred and mundane spheres of our lives. Or to say it another way, to signify visually that the spirit of God continuously dwells in both the sacred and mundane areas of our lives when we surrender our broken hearts to God. And this act of surrender reveals the manifest purpose of our lives as Christians: to live within ourselves the eternal return of Christ daily in our hearts. Thus then, and only then, do we begin to understand what heals the cultures of mankind. And this is the modern Christian artist’s moral prerogative.
Xenia Williams is an Eastern Orthodox Christian and a member of St. John Kronstadt Church in Utica, NY. She studied art education at Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute-Pratt – Utica, New York and is currently working on pursuing a degree in Art Education while minoring in Art Therapy. Xenia has worked as a Substitute Teacher in the Utica School District.
“As an artist, I am a late bloomer, but I have been working on a graphic novel trilogy called Lilith’s Other Sister about culture and identity, that I started when I was a student at Evergreen State College. (Yes, that Evergreen). I have thought about identity, culture, the source of knowledge, healing and faith since I was twelve and my art tends to reflect those concerns.”